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‘Clemenza di Tito’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago basks in the glow of stellar performances

Lyric OperChicago’s “Lclemenzdi Tito” stars Matthew Polenzani (left) Joyce DiDonato. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La clemenza di Tito” stars Matthew Polenzani (left) and Joyce DiDonato. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014

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‘La clemenza di Tito’


When: To March 23

Where: Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker

Info: (312) 332-2244;

Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: March 7, 2014 7:36PM

It will always be “an odd opera out” among the late Mozart masterpieces that precede and surround it, but “La clemenza di Tito” (The Clemency of Titus) is also much more than a checklist title for musical completists.

Mozart wrote “Clemenza” hastily — and for money — in 1791 as a subcontracted commission for a collateral coronation of a lesser German emperor (who was picking up the additional title of King of Bohemia). “Clemenza” came with both topic and initial libretto, the demand for a major castrato singer, and a format — “opera seria” — that was long out of fashion and far from where Mozart was artistically at the end of his life (see “The Magic Flute,” Requiem and clarinet concerto).

Yet Mozart created something within these requirements and in the right musical, vocal and theatrical hands, there can be much to appreciate here. And if Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new-to-Chicago production that opened Wednesday night — only its second presentation of the work following the 1989 local premiere — does not always achieve total unity, it has several superb performances, elegant and intelligent musical direction and orchestral playing, and an often attractive and human-scaled production.

Titus was the late first-century Roman emperor known chiefly for his earlier military prowess, which included the destruction of the Temple and city of Jerusalem in the first war of conquest against the Jews, and then for his magnanimity with his southern Italian subjects during his two-year reign. The adapted story, which Mozart used, tells of his forgiveness of plotters against him, who happen to be his rival/possible fiance and his best friend.

Chicago Opera Theater five years ago under Brian Dickie found a way to make this largely static work with the formulaic musical structure of earlier times pack a tight wallop, in part through its smaller-scale venue and a young cast in a concentrated Christopher Alden production. Lyric has a big house to fill with sights and sounds and the expectation of firework performances. Fortunately members of the all-American cast, led by mezzo-soprano master Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, who is Tito’s friend and also the lover of his rival for the throne, Vitellia, succeed in most instances.

It is DiDonato’s magic that she not only thrills in a famous aria such as “Parto, parto,” with rolls and trills and other embellishments that she makes part of an organic whole, but also is a superb duet partner who brings out the best in her colleagues and adds dramatic heat to these connections as well as rock-solid musical foundation.

Lyric Ryan Center alumna soprano Amanda Majeski as Vitellia, (COT’s Vitellia in 2009 and now embarked on an international career) is a striking and serious counterpart to DiDonato, and their voices and characters play off of each other like powerful magnets. Majeski, too, has the round, low end of the range demanded by this part.

Another Ryan grad, now in the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist program, has a breakout performance here. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall as Annio (another friend of Sesto who is the male-half of the opera’s secondary love story) has a wonderful stage presence as a young aristocrat in the turn-of-the-19th-century style of David McVicar’s 2011 production from Aix-en-Provence. And she combines sincerity and rich beauty in her singing. Current third-year Ryan soprano Emily Birsan matches Hall as Servilia. Ryan alumnus bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a strong prefect Publio. Only Chicago-area native tenor Matthew Polenzani, admittedly in a usually thankless, one-dimensional role, takes time to build his enigmatic character and presence.

Lyric music director Andrew Davis loves this score and led it here 24 seasons ago, too. He paces and shapes it so that it moves freely and warmly even in its repetitions. McVicar brings us a tough team of martial artist/dancers to underscore the militaristic atmosphere of Rome with monumental sets all lit with illustrative care by Jennifer Tipton. Michael Black’s chorus shakes the house as appropriate while Marie Lambert stages McVicar’s ideas so that we have intimacy of character as much as the usual symbolism.

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