Can it be that, as our society becomes more enlightened and accepting of non-binary gender identity and trans rights, we are actually just finally catching up with the world of 18th-century opera? In Thaddeus Strassberger’s rich and gorgeously sung new production of Mozart’s final opera, “La Clemenza di Tito” (unnecessarily translated by LA Opera as “The Clemency of Titus”), we are treated to two exquisite examples of the bizarre but often riveting opera tradition of “trouser roles,” male characters sung by women and written for soprano-range voices.
Mozart allegedly wrote his last opera in 18 days, just months before his premature death in 1791.
The piece was a profitable commission from impresario Domenico Guardasoni on behalf of the Estates of Bohemia to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. Some reports indicate that Guardasoni’s original contract placed greater importance on the presence of a leading castrato in the piece than on the composer. In the late 18th century it was still common to have male singers castrated before puberty so they sing in the soprano range.
Many of the era’s great heroic male roles were written for men who could sing like a woman (and the castrati were paid more than any other opera singers, male or female). While this can seem bizarre to contemporary audiences unfamiliar with the tradition, Baroque audiences were not constrained by any devotion to realism. Instead, the soprano range was widely considered the most beautiful, and the important roles – male or female – were written to land within it. When castration went out of practice, these great roles were taken over by mezzo sopranos performing in drag.
LA Opera’s sumptuous production (the company’s first time tackling this lesser-known piece) features two women portraying male characters: Elizabeth DeShong sings Sesto and Taylor Raven sings Annio, both mezzos bedecked in elaborate Roman tunics and beards. Any initial cognitive dissonance for contemporary audiences quickly evaporates in the beauty of the music given to these characters, and the singers’ exquisite delivery.
“Tito” is an almost ridiculously complicated story of revenge, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption. Vitellia (soprano Guanqun Yu), the daughter of assassinated emperor Vitellius, is enraged when she learns current Emperor Tito (tenor Russell Thomas) is marrying someone else. She plots with Tito’s close friend Sesto (DeShong) – who is in love with her – to murder Tito and set fire to Rome. Sesto’s sister, Servilia (soprano Janai Brugger) is in love with Annio (Raven), and they want the emperor’s permission to marry. Tito surprises everyone by deciding to marry Servilia, then changes his mind to marry Vitellia, but her plot with Sesto can’t be stopped in time. Or can it? By the end Tito’s boundless generosity finds room for forgiveness for all. But not before some gorgeous Mozart arias.
The vast Dorothy Chandler can eat up tenor voices, but as he did in “Tosca” two years ago, Thomas easily fills the cavernous hall and brings power and precision to Tito’s recitatives and arias. Opera fans anticipate his debut as Verdi’s Otello in Toronto later this spring, and one can only help he sings that role soon at the Chandler. While Tito is the titular role, Mozart’s greatest gifts in the opera go to Sesto, and DeShong is more than up to the task. Her delivery of rococo runs, often at a breakneck pace, were stunning, and her Act I duet with Raven is a highlight. Yu’s Vitellia is powerful, and her long Act II plea for clemency is a stunner in a seemingly endless crimson train on a black staircase.
That memorable scene is just one piece of Strassberger’s delicious production, which presents scenes in gilded frames with Greg Emetaz’s dramatic projections providing the taste of Rome’s decadence and JAX Messenger adding atmospheric lighting. When the smoldering ruins of the city are revealed at the Act II rise, the audience applauds the stagecraft. Music director James Conlon brings his joyful wizardry to the pit, conducting the crack LA Opera orchestra with command and nuance, and allowing Mozart’s highlighting of the harpsichord and reeds to take center stage when appropriate. And good for LA Opera for casting fantastic singers who are also a gorgeous mosaic in terms of ethnicity and race.
After numerous Figaros and Magic Flutes, it took more than 30 seasons for LA Opera to get to “Tito,” but it was worth the wait for this richly theatrical and beautifully sung new production.
The Clemency of Titus runs through March 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Details at www.laopera.org.