By ( | First Posted: Nov 21, 2012 02:56 PM EST

Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito and Elīna Garanča as Sesto in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito."
Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on November 13, 2012.
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )

La Clemenza di Tito was the last opera Mozart ever composed, and yet few would look upon it as one of his best works. The likely explanation would be that the opera is part of the then-outdated seria genre.

On the surface, the plot lacks the nuanced complexities that make such works as Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro fantastic studies for scholars. Additionally, many feel that Mozart's adherence to opera seria conventions also limited the music freedom that he exerted in the less formally structured comedies. The work was ignored throughout the 19th century but seemed to pick up interest during the late 20th. Whether or not it ever attains the respect that some of the master's other works have garnered remains to be seen, but November 20th performance at the Metropolitan Opera, certainly makes a case for this work.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1984 production is one of the few traditional sets that modern critics do not lambast. The set's effectiveness is likely in its veiled minimalism. The center of the stage is relatively barren with stairs rising from downstage to a doorway all the way upstage. The architecture is made up marble columns that hint at ancient Rome, but could match a number of different settings. On the right and left of stage are two openings that lead off stage but were used throughout as gateway to different characters' lodgings. Another major brilliant component of the set is that despite never really changing form, it moves seamlessly from one scene to another thanks to a variety of different scrims that cut the stage in half to enable the upstage area to be cleared out and altered for ensuing scenes. Save for a few scenes, there seems to be an infinite variety in the changes and the viewer is endlessly surprised and amazed every time the center curtain rises to reveal the next set.

Elīna Garanča as Sesto, Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito, and Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia in Mozart's
Elīna Garanča as Sesto, Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito, and Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. Photo: Ken Howard. 

The lighting is also tremendously effective, particularly during the end of act one where it depicts the fire burning up Rome. During Vitellia's final aria, the stage went black with only a single spot like illuminating Barbara Frittoli in a chiaroscuro effect. Its haunting nature matched the tortured soul of Vitellia during this aria to perfection and is one of the images at the Met this season that will be hard to forget. In the final transition between Vitellia's final aria and the ensuing choral scene, the stage went black as an orchestral interlude was played. The orchestra built a crescendo on a drum roll and when the music reached its apex and prepared for the ensuing downbeat, the lights went on to reveal the grandiosity of the following scene that included Tito on his throne upstage and chorus members on both sides of him.

Giuseppe Filianoti made a triumphant return to the Met in the title role. The role of Tito is that of a benevolent emperor who questions almost everything about his function as emperor. Should he be benevolent and forgive sins that by law he tries to punish? Should he be vengeful despite always seeking a path toward clemency? Tito even questions whether he wants to be emperor at one point and ponders on how much more pleasant the life of a peasant must be. Filianoti brought a thrilling and immediate complexity to the emperor making him a man stuck between his own sense of duty as ruler and the personal loneliness that it creates for him. Tito's first appearance is not in a position of power. In fact, he is saying one last goodbye to his beloved Berenice. Filianoti's Tito ran to his departing fiancee one last time despite knowing better and as he watched her board her ship, he fell to his knees in clear pain. Later on Servilia tells him that she loves Annio and does not want to be Tito's wife. Filianoti's Tito walked about the stage in what seemed like an internally mounting rage and at one point walked up to her and prepared to hit her. The action prompted gasps from the audience but Tito then stopped himself, walked away and collected himself before launching into the energetic aria "Ah se fosse intorno al trono" in which he expresses his happiness at her honesty. In the second act when Sesto comes to admit his guilt for the assassination attempt, Tito demands to be left alone to talk to his best friend. Once Publio and his men have left the room, Filianoti's Tito rushed to Sesto and wrapped his arms around him. He begged his friend to explain his treason sotto voce which gave off a tinge of dread and pleading; it was the first time the whole night that Tito was unable to restrain his own emotional needs and gave into them.

Filianoti's voice exudes warmth and brilliance and coupled with his elegant phrasing and strong acting creates a truly satisfying "package." His relaxed singing throughout gave Tito a sense of control and his delicate phrasing, particularly in the first two arias "Del piu sublime soglio" and "Ah se fosse intorno al trono," captured the noble nature of the emperor. In the second aria he added a wonderful cadenza that climaxed in a high note that placed an authoritative stamp on the proceedings. However, every tenor's biggest challenge in the role is the final aria "Se all'impero," which includes a high tessitura that rises to a B flat and a plethora of ascending coloratura passages. Filianoti's rendition was a riveting display of virtuosity and vocal power, particularly in the latter coloratura sections of the aria.

Latvian Mezzo Soprano Elīna Garanča has long established herself as one of the rising stars at the Met after her breakout performance as Carmen in 2009. She made another star turn on Tuesday night as Sesto, Tito's best friend. Sesto is in many ways the central figure in the drama as his actions and choices are at the center of the plot. Like Tito, he is stuck between his duties and his love for the power starved Vitellia. His inability to control his feelings (like Tito) and give into his passion causes his downfall and exemplifies his weakness. Garanča's Sesto matched his sensitive and insecure nature. During an early scene during which Vitellia asks him to trust her, Garanča's Sesto looked toward Annio almost seeking out someone to make a decision for him. During the famous "Parto, Parto" Garanča essentially portrayed the character's entire crumbling arc. She began the aria with fortuitous tone as she told Vitellia that she will do as she pleases, almost as if confident that Sesto will finally get what he wishes. But as the aria developed into its second section, the tone became ever thinner and Sesto's vulnerability took over. At one point, she delivered his "Guardami" fermate with a heart breaking mezza voce that sounded as if it were on the verge of tears. The ensuing passages were delivered with the same soft, but wrenching singing. The desperation increased as the music took on a frenzied character and Garanča's Sesto delivered the fiendish coloratura with a virtuosic crescendo and diminuendo while kneeling and wrapping her arms around Vitellia desperately. Garanča provided a similarly nuanced rendition during the dramatic scene with Tito, including a riveting cadenza during the trio with Publio and Tito.

Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia in Mozart's
Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on November 13, 2012. 

Barbara Frittoli matched her co-stars with a complex portrayal of the opera's anti-heroine Vitellia. Mozart tells his listener everything they need to know about Vitellia in her first aria "Deh, se Piacer mi vuoi:" her dominating, manipulative, and alluring nature is present in the tricky coloratura; her murderous thoughts and tendencies by some passages in the deep recesses of the soprano voice. Frittoli's commanding stage presence and technically sound voice matched this aria splendidly and her delivery of the lower notes made for chilling moments. In other scenes, she brought a sardonic tone to the character, particularly when dealing with Servilia, which added some lighter touches to the character and made Vitellia's pomposity a bit unnerving. At the end of her trio with Annio and Publio she contemplated running after Sesto to stop him from committing the crime. However, she stopped herself, re-considered, made a comic dismissive motion and walked in the opposite direction. However, the libretto develops the character nicely as Vitellia's guilt over Sesto's impending death begins to dominate her. Vitellia's final rondo "Non più di fiori" explores the character realizing the consequences of her actions. Frittoli started the aria with delicate tone while lying on the floor, expressing the pain and sorrow Vitellia finally feels for her devoted Sesto. She eventually stood and started to utilize her full vocal resources (and at one point boldly sang with her back to the audience). During the famous passage in which Mozart sets almost twelve bars in mezzo soprano territory that hovers around middle C (the lowest C in the soprano range), Frittoli's powerful voice resonated with dread of her impending death, but the confidence in her singing of the final passages gave off a heroic impression of a woman coming to terms with her fate.

Kate Lindsey has slowly risen through the ranks of the Met Opera. She graduated the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program before breaking out with her exuberant performance as Nicklaus in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. However, she may have had her defining moment at the Met this year as Annio. During Annio's aria "Tu Fosti tradito" during which the character begs Tito to forgive Sesto, Lindsey asserted herself with a gorgeous crescendo on an extended high G before ending the ensuing cadenza with a sublime pleading diminuendo. Lindsey's Annio showcased her trademark energy, but it was focused into a mature and assertive interpretation of the role: Annio snatched the order of death out of Tito's hands; he pushed Publio away to give himself an opportunity to plead with Tito; he gave Sesto a chiding look as Vitellia tried to dominate him; he pushed away a flirtatious Vitellia; and he hid in a corner as he listened to Sesto and Vitellia conspire. During the first act, Sesto struggles to tell Tito that he does not want Servilia to marry him. Lindsey's Annio rushed to Tito's side to tell him to marry her and essentially calmed the concerns of his friend. It was a move that immediately garnered the audience's sympathies for the noble character and made his reward all the more satisfying.

Lucy Crowe made a memorable impression as Servilia, particularly during her aria "S'altro che lagrime" which climaxes with two sustained high As. Crowe floated the two notes, adding a heavenly element to the pure character of Annio's lover. Oren Gradus added an earthy bass to Tito's advisor Publio.

Lucy Crowe as Servilia and Kate Lindsey as Annino in Mozart's
Lucy Crowe as Servilia and Kate Lindsey as Annino in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on November 13, 2012.

Conductor Harry Bicket gave a solid pace to the opera. His rendition of the overture was rather energetic without every feeling rushed or overindulging the fermate. He had a revelatory moment during the transition between Vitellia's aria and the ensuing chorus. He created a thrilling crescendo that combined with the stage's lighting directions created a true coup de theatre. He was a fabulous accompanist for both his singers and the multitude of solo winds featured throughout the work; neither set of performers ever sounded uncomfortable and transitions were pristine throughout the work.

La Clemenza may never be considered among Mozart's greatest work, but for one night, it certainly seemed like it could be thanks to the Met's revelatory cast, pristine staging, and fruitful conducting. 

Other Opera Reviews By David Salazar

The Tempest (November 7,2012)

Le Nozze Di Figaro (October 26, 2012)

Il Trovatore (October 17, 2012)

Otello (October 16, 2012)

L'Elisir D'Amore (October 5, 2012)

Carmen (September 28, 2012)

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