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Ancient History Sonorously, Sensually Brought Back to Life

Ed Rampell: In addition to this study in leadership style contrasts, Mozart’s opera eerily puts its finger right on a central concern affecting America right now - presidential pardon power.
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Taylor Raven as Annio and Janai Brugger as Servilla (photo Cory Walker)

I Beg Your Pardon: Mozart’s Morality Play & The Anti-Trump Enlightened Leader

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Clemency of Titus (La Clemenza di Tito), dramatizes part of the life and reign of the Emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, who ruled the Roman Empire from 79 to 81 A.D. This work of historically-inspired fiction with a libretto by Caterino Mazzola, based on an earlier libretto by Pietro Metastasio, vividly brings ancient Rome alive with exquisite costumes by Mattie Ullrich (which much to my sheer delight include, at long last, togas!) and stellar sets by Thaddeus Strassberger, who also expertly helms this colossal epic about the emperor who, among other things, completed the Colosseum. So let the operatic games begin!

Tenor Russell Thomas (the Floridian previously portrayed Cavaradossi in LA Op’s 2017 Tosca and tackles the title character in Verdi’s Otello for the Canadian Opera Company later this year) portrays Titus as a benign despot ensnared in a web of assassination plots and tangled sexual relationships that play into statecraft and rule. The storyline is so complex that this opera seria is a veritable soap opera - if not telenovela.

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Russell Thomas as Emporer Titus

Very much a philosopher king in Plato’s mode (even if the opera’s peccadilloes and infidelities are anything but Platonic), Titus waxes poetically on the constraints and restraints of rule, as “Mr. Nice Guy” seeks to impart a measure of civility, mercy and justice onto those the emperor reigns over. Titus searches for ways to ease, enlighten and lighten the load of leadership which, as his British counterpart pithily noted centuries later in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, Act 3, scene 1, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

Or to quote that Yorick of TV’s Hollywood Squares, the immortal Paul Lynde: “You think it’s easy? Not so easy!” Especially when surrounded by sexual schemers, double dealers, conspirators and would-be assassins. At the center lies (“lays”?) the sensuous Vitellia (Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu, who previously gave voice to the Countess in LA Op’s 2015 mounting of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), who desires to become empress by tying the knot with Titus. But they have, shall we say, a bit of a family history: Titus’ dear old dad brutally executed Vitellia’s father. To further cum-plicate matters, the sexy Vitellia is screwing the brains out of Sesto (Pennsylvanian mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong), ecstatically diddling his schlong to the point that Sesto is so brain addled and pussy-whipped that the ignoble nobleman actually conspires to kill his besty Titus at her behest. Conscience-stricken, Sesto is faced with that age-old dilemma:

“Bros before hos?”

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Guanqun Yu as Vitellia

Complications ensue, as Sesto’s pal, the infatuated Annio (North Carolinian mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, whose LA Op debut was in 2018’s Candide) announces his intentions to wed Sesto’s sister Servilia (Illinois’ soprano Janai Brugger, who previously appeared in LA Op productions such as 2010’s Figaro, and, like Yu, Brugger bestows beauty upon her part). However, there’s a fly in the libidinal ointment: Before Sesto can tell Titus of Annio’s marital wishes, the Roman ruler proclaims that he himself has chosen the fair Servilia to be his bride!

OMG, what’s an Emperor to do? Holy Jupiter there, Annio!

All this happens by around the middle section of Act I of this about two-hour and 40 minute-long sextravaganza, including one nail biting intermission. Suffice it to say that by the second act, Titus walks a tightrope contending with riots, Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption at Pompeii, conspiracies, navigating the tricky faction fights with regime hardliners such as his Chief Counsellor Publio (Washington State bass James Creswell) and last but not least, circumnavigating the sexual convolutions of those rascally Roaming Empire pagan libertines, as - like an ancient Spike-us Lee-us - our man Titus tries to do the right on thing.

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Lizabeth DeShong as Sesto and Taylor Raven as Annio

At this point, kudos must be tossed like fragrant laurels upon Strassberger’s brow for spectacularly rendering Rome, from sublime spectacle and splendor to wrack and ruin. Strassberger’s eye-popping scenery, superbly enhanced by Greg Emetaz’s projection designs and JAX Messenger’s lighting design in their LA Op debuts, is virtually a character unto itself that enlivens all of the action onstage. I also had an excellent eyeful of maestro James Conlon’s quite energetic conducting of the orchestra, with his kung fu-like movements conjuring up a sort of musical martial art magic.

Coded Chronicles

Although this was Mozart’s last opera, which premiered September 6, 1791 at Prague, Titus remains uncannily timely, with LA Opera’s splendiferous version opening the same day that Pres. Trump ranted and raved for hours at the CPAP convention near the U.S. Empire’s current imperial capital. Meanwhile, simultaneously, up north at Brooklyn College, self-proclaimed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his presidential campaign with soaring rhetoric full of high-minded sentiments. If Trump is Emperor “Don-ligula, the First, Worst and Last,” to whom the Romans would have built monuments to emoluments, Bernie looms like a latter day Titus, full of benevolence and mercy for the people - if enmity for the power elite personified by Don-ligula.

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In addition to this study in leadership style contrasts, Mozart’s opera eerily puts its finger right on a central concern affecting America right now - presidential pardon power.

In addition to this study in leadership style contrasts, Mozart’s opera eerily puts its finger right on a central concern affecting America right now - presidential pardon power. Will Don-ligula seek to pardon Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and other cronies (a formerly proposed pardon for Michael Cohen is much in the news as of this writing) - and if so, inquiring minds want to know why? As its title indicates, the granting of leniency by those in power is a key theme of Clemency and couldn’t be more of the moment in American political life. Perhaps Mozart, who died in 1791, had the gift of prophecy and we should also refer to the composer as “Amadeus-damus”? Or maybe, consciously or unconsciously, LA Opera’s powers-that-be are shrewdly, slyly selecting productions with not only historical value, but with au courant meaning as well?

Of course, Titus - who outlawed treason trials as one of his first acts upon taking office - was motivated by compassion and a wish to render justice. To be fair, while Don-ligula has granted an imprisoned drug offender or two clemency (although perhaps as a publicity stunt to appease celebrity sycophants - and, possibly, with an eye towards prison reform as he may soon be behind bars himself), his dubious pardon for professional racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio was as clearly politically-motivated as the possible ones for his criminal cronies, as a form of bribery to prevent their singing like birdies and turning treacherous (i.e., telling the truth publically).

(BTW, along with obstruction of justice, purported abuse of the pardoning power was charged against that other wanna be American emperor - Trickius Dickius. According to Article 1, 9., of the House Judiciary Committee’s July 27, 1974 Articles of Impeachment, Nixon was accused of: “endeavoring to cause prospective defendants, and individuals duly tried and convicted, to expect favored treatment and consideration in return for their silence or false testimony, or rewarding individuals for their silence or false testimony.”)

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As Don-ligula was braying like a psychotic jackass at the dirty CPAP crap conservative convention, I noticed that CNN instead of covering the former reality TV star’s Nuremberg rally the network instead televised Sanders’ formal announcement speech live at Brooklyn College in its entirety. This is a far cry from CNN’s woeful coverage during the 2016 race when it cut away from and preempted a triumphant Bernie’s speech following a primary victory to Trump’s literally empty podium, as the cameras cooled their proverbial heels to await his arrival at the mikes. Can it be that MSM has learned its lesson - that pandering solely to ratings for a celebrity candidate (who has a SAG card!) may have “earned” CNN higher ratings (translation into English: more advertising buckeroos) - but at the expense of helping the “Selectoral College” to select a would-be emperor who threatens the Fourth Estate as “enemies of the people,” “fake news”, and so on, jeopardizing journalists’ rights and safety?

BTW, in Titus His Majesty has some great lines about freedom of speech and if I recall correctly, comedy, too. Considering Don-ligula’s CPAPquestionable comments re: his only “joking” about Russia finding and releasing (as opposed to, ahem, “capturing and killing”) Hillary’s emails, does his defense of humor extend to SNL and the other comics he attacks and threatens? Does Don-ligula’s CPAP call for free speech on college campuses extend to proponents of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement aimed against Israeli ultra-militarism, etc. - and, while we’re at, for freedom of expression of Colin Kaepernick and other athlete protesters, too? Or is the First Amendment solely for Don-ligula’s “brown-togas”?

(BTW, could you imagine if Trump was Emperor when Mt. Vesuvius blew its top? He’d go to Pompeii and toss paper togas to survivors.)

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Non-Traditional Casting

Finally, a word about this production’s unconventional casting. In my extensive research of Emperor Titus in preparation for writing this review (i.e., I skimmed Performances Magazine and Wikipedia), it did not state that Titus - who was born in Rome and belonged to the Flavia dynasty - was of African ancestry. After the most distressing Black History Month I can remember (surely a sign of our racist times), along with L.A.’s annual effervescent Pan African Film Festival, it was refreshing exception to see Russell Thomas play the opera’s dignified protagonist. Not just because as Emperor Titus had high status, prestige and power, but much more importantly, because he strives to be an ethical, just leader - exactly what is so sorely lacking in the new Imperial headquarters of the world empire.

Other actor/singers such as Yu are unconventionally cast to play against ethnic type. And the fact that the bearded male characters Sesto and Annio are both played by female mezzo-sopranos is also noteworthy. (Perhaps this is a reference to Mozart’s 18th century use of castrato - you know, those no-nuts high-notes hitters.)

Given Titus���s darker, conspiratorial themes I leave Don-ligula, who is beset by testifiers warbling like canaries, wannabe impeachers and who-knows-what behind the scenes and on all sides plotters, with Shakespeare’s Romanesque warning: “Beware the Ides of March.” After all Don-ligula, we never promised you the Rose Garden.

The Clemency of Titus will be performed Thursday, March 7, Wednesday, March 13 and Saturday March 16 at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays March 10 and 24 at 2:00 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/1819-season-la-opera-season/the-clemency-of-titus/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .