When Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito premiered in 1791, there was one thing that most modern-day audiences would be shocked to hear about: The role of Sesto, a Roman patrician, was played by a castrato — a boy whose genitals had been cut off to maintain his high vocal register. The practice was common throughout Europe, after women were banned from singing on stage in the 16th century.
But 18th century audiences would also be shocked to see LA Opera’s 2019 production, which is radical . . . in a different way. Of course, Sesto is played by a mezzo-soprano woman instead of a castrato, but numerous roles are also played by performers of color, and the entire show reminds audience members that opera is not as old and dusty as the court of public opinion deems it.
“The Clemency of Titus” is memorable on several fronts: Its cast is talented and diverse; its artistic design is borrowed straight from a painting in the Louvre and its passionate orchestra carries the show to new heights. Combine that with conductor James Conlon on the podium, and you have a tour de force that redefines the art form of opera for modern audiences.
The absurdly complex plot of “The Clemency of Titus” begins with Vitellia (Guanqun Yu) convincing her admirer Sesto (Elizabeth DeShong) to murder the Roman Emperor Titus (Russell Thomas). Vitelia, whose (former emperor) father was murdered by Titus’ father, wants the throne for herself, and she’ll do anything to get it — even if that means manipulating Sesto with the promise of marriage.
Meanwhile, after Titus basically banishes the woman he had courted to marry (it’s complicated), he attempts to marry Servilia (Janai Brugger), who also happens to be Sesto’s sister. Servelia declines the offer, so Titus asks Vitelia for her hand.
By this point Vitelia and Sesto have already paused and restarted their murder plans, further complicating the opera’s plot, since Sesto is now on a mission to murder Vitellia’s future husband, who he thinks is her mortal enemy.
The three leading characters, played by Yu, DeShong and Thomas, balance each other perfectly. Thomas champions his role with pure ferocity. It makes sense that Titus’ subjects think he is a divine ruler, because that voice took the audience to church.
DeShong does a remarkable job filling in for an 18th-century castrato. DeShong has the most material in the show but delivers it with ease and a voice that sounds the way velvet feels. She and Taylor Raven — who plays the young patrician Annio — both exhibit refined physical character work as first-century noblemen.
And Yu holds her own as the bloodthirsty villainess. Her full soprano sound — even from the top to the bottom of her range — stood out from every other singer, making her a joy to listen to.
Director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger brought the perfect sense of cohesion to both of his roles, which made the two and a half hours fly by. The blocking was simple yet effective, allowing the ensemble to bring Mozart’s score to life without unnecessary frills.
Mattie Ullrich’s costume design brings the perfect touch of whimsy to the production with bold colors and a 25 foot-long train (worn by Guanqun Yu at the end of the show). The costumes worn by the chorus, including headband halos and ornate gladiator helmets, pulled the story together aesthetically.
The show’s plot, despite its complexity, is made clear with the cast and creative team’s expertise. The mercy that Emperor Titus shows to those around him is an example anyone can learn from — in any year. And LA Opera puts diversity at the forefront of its new production, painting a vision for opera’s future.
LA Opera’s “The Clemency of Titus” runs through March 24. Tickets are available through LA Opera’s website.