Mozart 1, Drama 0
The Score's the Thing in 'La Clemenza'

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

If a constant welling of glorious music were all it took to make a successful opera, we'd hear Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito" much more often than we do. The score is shot through with the serene, autumnal radiance that suffuses other works from the composer's last months -- the Clarinet Concerto, "The Magic Flute," "Ave Verum Corpus" and those portions of the Requiem that Mozart lived to complete. Yet "Clemenza" has never been a popular work, and the Washington National Opera's current production, which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, reaffirmed the reasons why.

Although "Clemenza" is shorter than Mozart's other mature operas ("Abduction From the Seraglio" excepted), it seems considerably longer, due to its crushingly static nature, with its waxen characters and its organization into formal tableaux rather than dramatic scenes. WNO sums up the story in one sentence -- "Vitellia, daughter of the deposed Vitellius, can't decide if she wants to murder the Emperor Titus or marry him" -- and this is a slender thread with which to weave an evening of music theater.

"La Clemenza di Tito" -- "The Clemency of Titus" -- was created to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia and, as so often with ceremonial works, it has no humor whatsoever. The only moments of wit in the WNO production came when the characters were given lines or situations of such absurdity that the only safe way to play them was to overplay them, with a sort of all-knowing irony that I usually dislike but which proved something of a relief on Saturday. One begins to understand why it took until 1952 for "Clemenza" to be staged in the United States, and then only in a student production at Tanglewood.

Still, there is that wonderful music: the rapt, leisurely ensembles for women's voices that prefigure "Der Rosenkavalier" by more than a century; the stern, declarative arias for the major characters; the noble and elevated writing for orchestra. Again and again, I found myself marveling at Mozart's powers of invention and reflecting, once more, upon the vast emotional, intellectual and spiritual distance between very good music, which is standard in the opera house, and great music, which is not.

"Clemenza" deserves nothing less than the honeyed sweetness of Leopold Simoneau, the vigor and emotional immediacy of Frederica von Stade, the sinuous suavity of Ezio Pinza. These particular artists being unavailable, WNO chose a skillful, hardworking and occasionally inspired cast. Michael Schade has a rather dry tenor voice, but he deployed it with unflagging intensity and musical intelligence as Tito. Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya made a fierce, tireless Vitellia: Her understanding of Mozartean style is still evolving and much of Act 1 was sung too loudly, but she brought a regal dignity to her big Act 2 aria.

As Sesto, mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko, in her house debut, looked and moved somewhat like early-'80s David Bowie. She has a healthy voice, happiest in the middle register, and she sang with innate command, although her diction was sometimes indistinct. Soprano Jossie Perez brought a fresh, welcome lyricism to the role of Annio. Bass-baritone Nikolai Didenko made a conscientious and musical Publio, while soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang piped the small role of Servilia pertly.

The Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus sounded eager, adept and well-drilled under the direction of Heinz Fricke, who conducted with affection and authority. The handsome production, by Michael Hampe and German Droghetti, was mostly traditional -- columns and wreaths and, off in the background, Rome burning (all orange and black, like Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind"). As such, it was a surprise when an iconic and distinctly American eagle, complete with clutched thunderbolts, dropped down to dominate the finale. Was there a message here? If so, it didn't make much sense, but nobody goes to this opera for the drama anyway.

La Clemenza di Tito will be repeated Thursday, next Sunday afternoon and May 17, 19, 22 and 27. Call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org .

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