- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

You have to hand it to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Month after month, from his teens until his untimely death as a thirtysomething, he churned out a dazzling array of compositions, even the most trivial of which were at least pleasing to the ear.

The same can be said of his numerous operas. The most famous of them, such as “Don Giovanni” and “Die Zauberflote” (“The Magic Flute”), have remained in the repertoire almost constantly. Others, such as “La Clemenza di Tito” (roughly, “The Mercy of Tito”), are not so well known but can still provide a lovely and unusual evening of theatrical entertainment, as the Wolf Trap Opera Company so ably demonstrated this weekend past at its summer home in the Barns.

“Tito,” composed on an older libretto and commissioned in 1791 as a showpiece to celebrate the coronation of Bohemia’s new King, Leopold II, contains some of Mozart’s richest and most complex music. Unfortunately, Mozart’s genius is mated to a story line that is undeniably silly, even in the world of opera.

Tito, the opera’s title character, is the historic figure Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus, or the Roman Emperor Vespasian, renowned for his relatively enlightened world views and generosity of spirit. In the opera, however, he ends up looking a bit like a patsy.

Before the action begins, Tito already has canceled his plans to marry a Judean princess named Berenice due to rumblings (perhaps anti-Semitic?) from the Roman populace. Instead, he plans a wedding with the beautiful Servilia, sister of his best friend, Sesto. The problem is that Servilia already has planned to wed Sesto’s friend, Annio, whom she loves.

When Tito gets wind of this, he forgives both Annio and Servilia and sends them on their way to the altar with his blessings, turning his attention to Vitellia, daughter of the emperor Tito deposed. The problem is, Vitellia, irritated that she was not Tito’s first choice, has conspired with Sesto to burn down the capital and assassinate Tito in the process. Sesto is as good as his word and nearly accomplishes the evil deed, but Tito survives, and ends up forgiving both Sesto and Vitellia at the opera’s end.

So much for verisimilitude. Yet, the same issue never prevented Mozart from writing wonderful music, and such is the case with “La Clemenza di Tito.” The Wolf Trap Opera’s production, smoothly directed by Garnett Bruce and under the able baton of Steven Mosteller, presents the work as a beautifully sung morality play, a largely successful approach.

The opera’s best musical moments are reserved for Vitellia and Sesto. As Vitellia, soprano Carolyn Betty is outstanding in a role that demands great flexibility and substantial plunges into the lower portions of the register. Confident and well-controlled, Miss Betty’s burnished voice easily navigates Mozart’s challenges, and she is surprisingly confident and at ease for a young singer.

Equally outstanding is mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi in the trouser role of Sesto. Sesto’s role in this opera is quite complex. Early on, he swaggers a bit, relishing his role as the Emperor’s right-hand man. Later, however, he is violently conflicted, seduced by Vitellia into betraying his friend. When caught, he is crushed by genuine remorse for his weakness and faithlessness as a friend.

As polished an actress as she is a singer, Miss Rishoi exploits this cross-dressed role for all it’s worth with a convincingly authoritative tone and manner. Both these young singers promise to become better established in the opera world in the not-too-distant future.

More problematic, however, is the casting of impressive New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill as the Emperor — and not for the usual reasons.

Mr. O’Neill’s voice is big, powerful and commanding, and he is not afraid to show it in this opera. In a way, that’s reassuring. Portraying an emperor who seems a little weak-kneed in the retribution department, perhaps Mr. O’Neill is attempting to show, vocally, that Tito is fully possessed of the manly confidence required of a great Roman ruler. But his instrument is so dominating at times that it overpowers the rest of the ensemble.

The Wolf Trap Opera Company rightly casts its young singers in lighter textured operatic works that will not damage their still-developing instruments. Judging from last week’s performances, however, Mr. O’Neill may be ready to graduate to heftier operas on a faster track.

In smaller roles, mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh (Annio, another trouser role), soprano Miranda Rowe (Servilia) and bass Matt Boehler (Publio, Tito’s aide-de-camp) turn in sterling performances, both as soloists and in the ensemble numbers.

All was not perfection in this production, however. The Wolf Trap Opera is generally quite clever in the way that it mounts performances on the tiny stage — for opera, at least — at the Barns, but its current production of “Tito” falls short of the company’s usual standards.

The costuming, by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, is positively bizarre, even in an age where postmodern dress seems de rigueur.

Trousered mezzo sopranos Miss Rishoi and Miss Niederloh are arrayed in baggy woolen pinstripes that make them resemble refugees from a summer stock production of “Guys and Dolls.” Tito looks like an Annapolis midshipman in dress whites, save for the huge and silly golden eagle that clasps his flowing white cloak. The Emperor’s entourage is collectively attired in outfits that could have been borrowed from party apparatchiks in the Washington Opera’s recent production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul.”

This apparently random hodgepodge simply doesn’t convey anything meaningful at all, save for the kind of fashionable European irony that has been boring American audiences for the past 20 years.

Mr. Hegel-Cantarella’s set is not much more distinguished. His all-white, unadorned approximation of Tito’s palace in the first act shows a remarkable lack of inspiration. This is only partially redeemed by the creative touch in the second stanza, when the burnt-out skeleton of that same palace appears in its place — a nicely startling effect.

Fortunately, a fine orchestra, sparkling young singers and a reliable Mozartian score make this an otherwise enjoyable evening, particularly for operagoers who are willing to explore wonderful late-classical, early Romantic music that deserves to be heard more often.

WHAT: Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”

WHO: Wolf Trap Opera Company

WHERE: The Barns of Wolf Trap

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

TICKETS: Call Tickets.com at 703/218-6500 or 800/955-5566; or access online at http://www. wolftrap.org/performances/ tickets.html

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