Talented Cast Conquers Updated Mozart Opera La Clemenza di Tito

Meghan Farnsworth

Darkness surrounded Hall Auditorium as a head bopped into view in the middle of the orchestra pit. The head belonged to guest conductor Niels Muus, who established a commanding yet amiable persona from the very beginning of the overture. Right after the orchestra finished, the curtain lifted and luminescent, metallic Romanesque columns appeared before the audience’s eyes. So began the opening night performance of Oberlin Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

Written during the last year of his life between July and September 1791, Mozart finished La Clemenza on the eve of its initial performance. Accordingly, the opera is often criticized for its hastily compiled nature; however, during the early 19th century Clemenza was one of Mozart’s most popular operas, and the work is now hailed as a landmark in the development of the opera seria genre (an Italian form of opera that is characterized by its intensely dramatic nature).

As the title suggests, Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”) articulates a message of mercy and forgiveness. The opera features a cast of characters who alternately display extreme forms of compassion, passion, skepticism, selfishness and most significantly, love (a theme that serves as the driving force behind almost every opera).

Unsurprisingly, the forces of love motivate the plot of Clemenza as well. The opera is set in Rome, where the city’s ruler Tito is enamored with the foreign queen Berenice. Vitellia, the emperor’s daughter, believes that she should be Tito’s consort, and seeks revenge on him by seducing Sesto, Tito’s loyal companion. Vitellia then convinces Sesto to lead an assassination attempt on Tito, resulting in a shocking and unexpected ending.

The production features two separate casts: one for Wednesday and Saturday, and another for Friday and Sunday. The opening night performance showcased Conservatory seniors Cree Carrico as Vitellia, Roy Hage as Tito and Julia Dawson as Sesto. The Friday/Saturday cast features Conservatory seniors Summer Hassan as Vitellia and George Somerville as Tito, and Conservatory junior Katherine Janakos as Sesto.

Utterly stunning and impressive, the talented and professional company portrayed their roles with passion, dedication and artistry. Each singer’s part could stand on its own and was never dependent on the power of other voices for support. Even when characters were singing duets, the sound of their voices in unison was clear and clean, beautifully showcasing the singers’ perfect intonation.

Director Jonathon Field’s simple and effective staging was also striking, with specific moments beautifully highlighting the action as it unfolded. For instance, Carrico as Vitellia would, at certain points, retrieve a tube of lipstick from her clutch, applying the lipstick with painstaking, almost religious care. This simple gesture served as a subtle and tasteful foreshadowing of the opera’s ending. The chorus, who walked slowly and steadily while elevated behind the stage’s columns, was another ingenious staging detail, making it seem as if the main events unfolding at the front of the stage were doing so in a completely different time zone.

I strongly recommend Clemenza to anyone who loves modernist, updated adaptations of Shakespeare plays: Contemporary elements such as Pop Art, iPads and cocktail dresses make appearances throughout the production. The inventive production design, with a hint of harpsichord thrown into the mix, results in a refreshing and delightful approach to opera seria. Even Mozart himself would adore it.

La Clemenza di Tito runs in Hall Auditorium from March 18 through 20. Friday and Saturday performances start at 8 p.m., while the Sunday performance begins at 2 p.m.