Titus | Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The production is impressive but also overly obvious and sometimes working at cross-purposes with the story.

One thing classical musicians like to do when among their own is to argue about who was the greatest composer of all time. The point, of course, is not what answer you give, but how cleverly you can defend it. For champions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one important point in his favor is that he not only wrote some of the greatest works of all time, but that he never wrote a clunker. That’s a key argument for a production of his opera Titus, also known as La Clemenza da Tito or The Clemency of Titus—it may not be the best Mozart ever, or even the best Mozart opera, but it’s still worth hearing.

Titus was commissioned for the 1791 coronation of Emperor Leopold II of Bohemia, so it’s not surprising that the libretto celebrates a monarch who is the very paragon of enlightenment and justice. It’s an opera seria, a somewhat archaic form even in 1791, and while it may be less approachable than say, The Magic Flute, it’s still full of glorious music that is beautifully performed in the current production at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

The libretto, by Caterino Mazzola, based on previous work by Pietro Metastasio, is a bit of a tangle, but succeeds in two important goals: 1) flattering the new emperor, and 2) enabling the writing of beautiful music. Vitellia (Laura Wilde) loves Tito (René Barbera), the new emperor of Rome, but he loves someone else. When Tito’s first choice doesn’t work out, he chooses yet another woman, prompting the scorned Vitellia to induce her friend Sesto (Cecelia Hall) to assassinate Tito. Did I mention that Sesto is friends with Tito and is also in love with Vitellia? He botches the assassination but does succeed in burning down much of Rome. Sesto and Vitellia, who has become Tito’s first choice for bride, are brought to justice, and Tito must decide whether he should extend mercy to those who plotted against his life.

Titus is heavy on recitative, and the choice to not include these expositional passages in the supertitles is odd, and that extra bit of assistance is missed since since the singers’ diction is good but not flawless. That quibble aside, the musical performances by the cast and orchestra (including some fine solo work from the pit by clarinetist Scott Andrews) are superb. Barbera rules the stage vocally and dramatically, and is granted some of the opera’s most tuneful melodies. Cecilia Hall and Emily D’Angelio (the latter in the role of Annio, a friend of Sesto) have far more complex vocal lines (the role of Sesto was originally performed by a castrato, while Annnio, a breeches role, was originally performed by a female soprano), but carry them off with great aplomb. Wilde does well in a role that could easily have become cartoonish, while the chorus is outstanding throughout. In fact, the ensemble and choral numbers include some of the most attractive music in this opera, at least to modern ears.

The production is impressive but also overly obvious and sometimes working at cross-purposes with the story. The choice to go monochromatic is odd in a work celebrating a coronation, and while I can see the point for allowing Titus colorful robes, it’s less obvious why Vitellia is also colorfully attired (in scarlet, no less, offering a thunderingly obvious interpretation of her character). Most of the characters wear combinations of black, white, and gray, with the men fitted out in tricorn hats (which are employed in far too much stage business), ponytail wigs, Sgt. Pepper-style silver epaulets, and swords (Thomas Jefferson joins the navy?). The stage floor is covered with either a black-and-white map of Rome or a Roy Lichtenstein-style abstract work of art, while a gigantic silver eagle (a symbol of the emperor, a point hammered home relentlessly) dominates the air space above the stage (and sometimes the stage itself). | Sarah Boslaugh

Titus is presented in repertory by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis through June 24. Performances are at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, at Big Bend) in Webster Groves. Tickets are available at a wide range of prices, with special deals available for many groups including students, educators, and military personnel. Further information about the season, ticket availability, and special events is available from the company’s website or by calling 314-961-0644.

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