Review: The Met Makes a Case for Mozart’s Least-Loved Opera

“La Clemenza di Tito,” Mozart’s least-loved opera, returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday evening to an auditorium yawning with empty seats.

The cast wasn’t to blame. With the fiercely empathetic mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, a trouser role she has made her own, this revival made a strong case for the work’s rehabilitation on musical grounds.

But by recycling the airless Rococo-dress staging by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle from 1984, the Met perpetuates the prejudice against the work as dramatically irrelevant. His take is so short on ideas that it might be more honest to let the singers wear their own clothes and call it a concert production.

Mozart wrote “Clemenza” on commission in 1791 for the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia. In the opera, a Roman emperor forgives his friend, who had been compelled by love to conspire against him. The 1734 libretto, by Pietro Metastasio, already felt sclerotic by Mozart’s theatrical standards; he tweaked it to create ensemble numbers amid the sequence of dry recitatives and pomp-and-firework arias that made up a traditional opera seria.

Even so, an Austrian nobleman who attended the premiere called it “most boring” in his diary. The new queen, Maria Luisa, struggled to stay awake. Reports that she called the opera “una porcheria tedesca” — German pigswill — may be apocryphal. Or perhaps she bristled at the work’s political message, which presented clemency and tolerance as a ruler’s supreme virtues just weeks after Marie Antoinette had been arrested midflight and forcibly returned to Paris amid jeering crowds. After all, the production Leopold and Maria Luisa watched in Prague was in contemporary dress.

On Saturday, the singers struggled to convey a unified dramatic concept amid 18th-century wigs and pastel Roman columns. The tenor Matthew Polenzani sang the title role of the ruler unhappy inside his power bubble with a plush, slightly woolly tone and plain-spoken phrasing. In one scene he confronts Sesto, who has confessed to the plot on his life without letting on that the vengeful Vitellia (the voluble soprano Elza van den Heever) manipulated him into it. Mr. Polenzani’s acting seemed to suggest a homoerotic bond between Tito and Sesto. That’s an intriguing idea, but would require a new staging designed around it; the opera shows Sesto being very much in love with Vitellia.

And when Ms. DiDonato portrays that passion, she does so wholeheartedly, with body and voice. In scenes with Ms. van den Heever, her sound was flickering, brilliant and complex, its warmth tempered with the touch of vinegar Mr. DiDonato injects when singing the part of a man.

Ms. van den Heever’s acting is more rigidly histrionic, but with her flame-drawn singing, she brought a welcome over-the-topness to a work filled with conflicted-but-noble characters.

Sahred From Source link Arts

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