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Thirteen years ago, imprisoned Italian radical Antonio Negri and Bethesda native literary theorist Michael Hardt published a nearly impenetrable 500-page tome called Empire, and the U.S. government got a new nickname. Their sweeping, neo-Marxist analysis actually described a broader set of actors, from Exxon-Mobil to the IMF, as comprising the new global hegemon. But we’re always in need for a snappier way to say “the powers that be”; “Military-Industrial Complex” was too long, “The Man” too passé and patriarchal, and “Big Brother” was about to become a hit reality TV show. So “Empire” it was.

The word conjures up unsettling associations with rather nasty regimes of years past, which was exactly Hardt and Negri’s point. Are we really the new Rome? The In Series may not be the first to take this question literally, but they may have been the first to pose it in opera form.

Of course, Mozart didn’t set La Clemenza di Tito in Washington. His last composed opera (the better-loved Magic Flute, composed before Clemenza, premiered later) takes place during the reign of Roman emperor Titus. It’s not one of Mozart’s best. The composition was rushed; the story, an off-the-shelf adaptation of Pietro Metastasio’s libretto, one that had already been used for a couple dozen operas before and gives away the ending (Titus’ clemency) in the very title. The general perception that Mozart half-assed the job comes from the fact that it was commissioned on an or-else basis for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, who fancied himself a new Caesar and didn’t care what it sounded like as long as it made him look majestic.

So the parallels librettist Charlotte Stoudt draws, in the In Series’ adaptation, between ancient Rome and modern D.C., are clumsy, but probably no clumsier than those in Mozart’s day. It’s a ridiculous plot no matter what the setting: the emperor’s (here, president’s) scheming fiancée plots with his best friend to assassinate him. The plot fails, but Tito, being magnanimous if a little dense, forgives them both. Though set in the ’60s, the adaptation takes on present-day motifs. The In Series first staged Stoudt’s version in 1997, back when Washington palace intrigue was sexier; this production, directed by Steven Scott Mazzola, shrouds the characters in a gloomier, post-9/11 sense of tension.

Here, the In Series is hampered by some problems of its own making, others out of its hands. The company has always staged shows in venues not built for opera (here, at Atlas), and their often bilingual productions suffer from lack of surtitles. Clemenza is entirely in English, but the odd stage design leaves singers with their backs turned to half the audience much of the time, frustrating comprehension. The singing itself has its moments, but for the most part underwhelms. Daniele Lorio, as the scheming first lady-to-be Vitellia, has the strongest voice, but garbles under heavy vibrato and strains in her lower register. Madelyn Wanner is decent in the role of Sesto, originally written for a male soprano back when getting castrated was a sure path to showbiz success. Mazzola also switches up genders with the romance between Servilia and Annio, here Annia, Tito’s press secretary. The girl-on-girl action is meant to scintillate, but Laura Wehrmeyer stands out in some particularly nice duets. The male singers, Scott Thomas as Publio and Nephi Sanchez as Tito, impress the least; like in the West Wing, the president starts off as a minor character and moves to center stage toward the end, but Sanchez’s half-singing/half-speaking doesn’t improve in the process.

For an opera that climaxes with Rome/Washington burning to the ground, one could wish for a more elaborate set and full orchestra, rather than four canvas pillars and chamber ensemble. But these, like the surtitles, are ambitions for a larger company than the In Series. Above all, modern politics is a tough subject to crack with opera, and attempts to either satirize (as UrbanArias did last year) or dramatize (here) Washington usually fall short. The In Series’ Clemenza is unfortunately too silly to be suspenseful, yet too serious to be much fun.

La Clemenza di Tito runs Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 3 at 3 p.m. at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $21-$42. (202) 399-7993.

Photo by Johannes Markus