Sunday, May 7, 2006

The Washington National Opera opened its handsome new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” (literally, “The Clemency of Titus”) at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday to a slightly less-than-full house — somewhat unusual for the company’s openings these days. Perhaps it was the lovely summery weather outside. More than likely, it was a lack of familiarity with Mozart’s penultimate opera.

Based loosely on the story of the Roman Emperor Titus, “Tito” is meant to showcase and honor this ruler’s admirable ability to forgive his enemies. But, for cynical 21st century Washingtonians, Titus’ forbearance seems almost comically absurd. In the course of just under three hours, he is rejected by two intended brides, survives an attempted assassination by his best pal, and watches the Senate burn down courtesy of that same friend. And he forgives them all.

Director Michael Hampe seems to have found a way to deal with each of Titus’ setbacks with a light comic touch that makes the absurdity respectable enough, although he leaves the outcome of the finale tantalizingly ambiguous. The elegant 18th-century costuming and the clean, evocative sets from the Teatro Municipal de Santiago (co-designed by the director) accent the pageantry. And superb singing by the principals as well as the chorus contributes to an enjoyable evening of non-standard Mozart.

As the put-upon Roman emperor, tenor Michael Schade has the difficult task of making his potentially sappy character not only believable, but sympathetic. He excels in both tasks, underplaying the role when necessary, but unleashing sparks of real anger at his ultimate betrayal. His actions are underpinned by a distinctly smooth and mellow voice that projects authority with appropriate interludes of melancholy.

As loyal Publio, bass Nikolai Didenko reveals an instrument astonishing in its depth and clarity. Publio is a relatively small role, so it would be a delight to hear Mr. Didenko return to the company in a more substantial one.

Yet, male singers are the exception in this opera. The remaining characters of both genders are sung by the ladies. As Servilia, the first would-be bride to reject Titus, soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang sings in a voice as delicate as the finest porcelain. As her real suitor, Annio, mezzo Jossie Perez impresses with a well-supported instrument and fine diction.

The real finds in this production, however, are soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya as the scheming Vitellia, and mezzo Marina Domashenko in a trouser role as the conflicted Sesto, lover of Vitellia and the emperor’s best friend. Miss Pavlovskaya possesses an astonishingly huge yet well-controlled instrument. She also astounds in her ability to nail some of Mozart’s near-baritone passages cleanly and audibly. Miss Domashenko, for her part, can achieve surprising heights for a mezzo, while plumbing the lower depths with equal aplomb. An added attraction, her skillful ornamentation accentuated her profound mastery of her craft.

As is so often the case in the German repertoire, the company’s music director Heinz Fricke led the WNO orchestra in a smoothly symphonic rendition of Mozart’s surprisingly lush score, bringing out its internal beauty while never allowing the instrumental ensemble to overwhelm his singers.

“La Clemenza di Tito” may never strike audiences as the kind of opera that should be programmed every other year like “The Marriage of Figaro.” But this production is as smooth, as intelligent, and as beautiful an evening as one is likely to spend at the opera. Audiences should not miss this month’s rare opportunity to hear this overlooked classical gem, whose current run at the KenCen is also a showcase for a superb cast of first-class singers who know their craft and enjoy practicing it to the fullest.


WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Thursday and May 17, 19 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., May 22 and 27 at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $290

INFORMATION: Call 202-295-2400 or visit


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