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OITH Does Well by Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito

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The set-up: Mozart's penultimate opera, La Clemenza di Tito, is music fit for a king, which is certainly appropriate since it was commissioned to celebrate the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II's coronation as King of Bohemia in September, 1791. The celebrations were hastily planned, leaving only about two months to ready Prague for the royal treatment.

An opera seria was required, but when approached to compose it on such short notice, imperial kapellmeister Salieri turned down the offer. The producer of the festivities then turned to the only composer in Vienna who could do justice to such a project, W.A. Mozart.

Offered double the salary he could command in the capital, the young composer eagerly accepted the assignment. Working from an already written libretto by the grand master of opera seria, Pietro Metastasio, Mozart and his adapter Mazzola quickly churned out an opera worthy to honor the "enlightened emperor."

Mozart couldn't have been more pleased when he got to Prague. His music was played everywhere, a veritable Mozart festival. The Czech capital always loved him more than his adopted Vienna. The new opera, though, didn't quite inflame the stuffy aristocrats, who found this melodic paean to an ancient Caesar a trifle boring. Those who knew their music and could hear what Mozart accomplished in this stylish work raved about the piece, but it was too little too late. One perceptive Czech did comment that after hearing Tito, it should have been Mozart who got the crown, not Leopold.

The opera found early favor, but got swamped by his other masterworks that swept the international scene. Almost two centuries would pass before the intrinsic beauties of the score were fully appreciated.

The execution: In Opera in the Heights' first production without maestro Enrique Carreon-Robledo, who was unceremoniously booted by the board last December in what was hazily reported as a "change of direction," interim music director Eiki Isomura led a thrilling performance of this Mozart rarity. The OH orchestra sounded splendid. Two and a half hours, which includes intermission, flew by as we were presented with a modern-dress rendition, plain, simple, elegant, of this old tale made totally fresh by Mozart's evanescent imagination.

Emperor Tito (tenor Zach Avery) is the sweetest man in Rome, beloved and honored by his citizens for his truthfulness and unimpeachable sense of justice. But when he chooses a wife, he rebuffs his predecessor's daughter, vain and ambitious Vitellia (soprano Celeste Fraser). Bad idea. She goes ballistic and wants blood - his. Seducing Tito's best friend Sesto (mezzo Vera Savage), Vitellia convinces the hapless man to assassinate Tito.

There's a subplot about adviser Annio (mezzo Jennifer Crippen) and his love Servilia (soprano Theadora Cottarel), a bump in the plot which inspires Mozart to pen some ravishing love duets and goodbye arias, but is basically filler. Publio (bass baritone Justin Hopkins), head of the Praetorian Guard, is there whenever someone needs to be arrested.

In the end, all is forgiven through the magnanimous clemency of Tito, a.k.a. Leopold. The people rejoice in a triumphal chorale. "May the gods strike me down if ever I cease working for the good of Rome," Tito exclaims. Prophetic words, for Leopold would be dead six months after Tito's premiere.

The emerald cast is one finely tuned ensemble. They mesh together, really listen to each other, and play off all the seria's high drama and melodramatics. Each brought something special to the work. Tito's a rather thankless role, too good to be true, but Act II has him questioning loyalty and tormented by betrayal in some of the most transparent continuo sections alternating with full orchestra. (Throughout, the harpsichord playing by Catherine Schaefer was always elegant.) Avery's crisp tenor shone best when his character had something juicy to sing.

Vitellia is certainly akin to Magic Flute's Queen of the Night, just not as floridly virtuosic. But she's someone new to opera, a force to be reckoned with: elemental, powerful, dangerous. Her successors will become Verdi mezzos and Wagner villains: Azucena, Amneris, Ortrud. Vitellia breathes fire into the opera. Her "Non piu di fiori" ("No more wedding wreaths for me") augmented by sweet clarinet (thanks to Maiko Sasaki) stands alone as a concert aria, as this wicked woman debates her fate, almost going mad with indecision. Should she confess and end her happiness, or let Sesto be killed for her sin? Frasar commands a large voice which rides over the orchestra during her fiery outbursts, and she made a perfect vamp, teasing poor Sesto in lacy black lingerie. Crippen and Cottarel were lovingly matched in ardor and warmth, and Hopkins's Publio held our attention with impeccable phrasing and honeyed tone.

But this was Savage's show. What a subtle powerhouse she is. As misguided Sesto, a pant's role originally sung by castrato, she's tall and blond and makes a very handsome man in black suit and tie. When director Keturah Stickman has her strip to her BVDs to keep Vitellia satisfied, the startling effect, somewhat ill-conceived, still manages to make dramatic sense since Savage plays it so well and looks the part. And her singing is a dream: supple and powerful, with a deep velvet shimmer. Whatever she sings, we believe.

Designed by Jeremiah Minh Grünblatt, the entire set is plastered with newspaper pages, like decoupage gone wild. The look's supposed to suggest political relevancy, I guess. It just looks like newspaper glued all over the set. But the updating, using Secret Service men and a chorus in black suits, works a lot better at getting this idea across. If nothing else, the contempo references don't trip up Mozart.

The verdict Although I miss maestro Carreon-Robledo's fire and passion in the pit and wish he were still leading OH, I will show clemency. Thank Mozart and some really fine interpreters for this stay of judgment.

La Clemenza di Tito continues with the emerald cast on February 5 and 7. The ruby cast performs February 6 and 8, and includes Eric Barry (Tito), Deborah Domanski (Sesto), Mary-Hollis Hundley (Vitellia), and Claire Shackleton (Annio). 1703 Heights Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at www.operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.

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