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‘La Clemenza di Tito’ Review: A Contemporary Take on the Mozart Classic

Opera del West's “La Clemenza di Tito: The President's Pardon” ran at the BCA Plaza Theatre until Oct. 1, 2023.
Opera del West's “La Clemenza di Tito: The President's Pardon” ran at the BCA Plaza Theatre until Oct. 1, 2023. By Courtesy of Jack Tan
By Sophia N. Downs, Crimson Staff Writer

Opera del West’s new production, “La Clemenza di Tito: The President’s Pardon,” transposes Mozart’s final opera to an imagined, contemporary, American political context.

In a fitting moment when “how often do you think about the Roman Empire” is trending on social media, Opera del West makes a stalwart effort to add a present-day, American twist to Mozart’s 1791 tale of power, love, revenge, and mercy set in Ancient Rome. But unfortunately, it tries to do too much, leaving its efforts underdeveloped.

Stage directed by Brenda L. Huggins and music directed by Eve K. Budnick, “La Clemenza di Tito” ran at the BCA Plaza Theatre until Oct. 1. The libretto features updates by Leo Balkovetz: additional dialogue in English, along with Anglicized names in a United States context instead of Italian names in a Roman context. Gone is the Roman emperor; in comes the hotshot Washington D.C. political candidate, Titus “Tito” Vanderbrook (Lucas Hickman).

The action is set at a dinner party in Washington D.C., with abstract scenic design that features a red, white, and blue color scheme. Accordingly, the opening scene features Vitellia and Sesto — now Veronica (Julia Pottinger) and Seth (Roselin Osser) — dressed in blazers, one wearing predominantly red and the other wearing blue, as selected by costume designer Nancy Ishihara. Their explosive opening duet sets the tone for the powerful music that pervades the opera.

Soon after the opera begins, the screen that features English supertitles also displays a social media stream. Instagram comments and posts rush the screen with names comically similar to politicians like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. The names and comments are lighthearted, but they hit so close to home that they feel almost too real.

The added English dialogue includes exclamations against the social-climbing tendencies of the Washington D.C. career ladder. The opera critiques modern-day America’s appearance-focused culture with pointed social commentary. Its place in society becomes clearer as characters whip out iPhones to record moments of drama and promptly post them on Instagram. The opera depicts the present day in all of its phone-obsessed, TikTok-watching splendor.

The original tale is ambitious, and this rendition seeks to level up the ambition even further. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pull it off. Opera del West’s version adds many new elements — new character relationships, new backstories, and, of course, a fresh context — but maintains the original score, causing the plot to feel rushed and packed with too many moving pieces for a two-hour performance. “The President’s Pardon” tries to have it all, but in doing so, takes on more than it can manage.

The plot features a series of love affairs and ironic miscommunications. However, characters’ relationships are confused by their awkward, uncomfortable physical chemistry. The acting feels stilted, leaving the delivery flat. The characters come from a diverse age range, and while in theory this may be a good choice, in practice it makes relationships harder to understand and adds discomfort to moments of staged physical intimacy.

In the second act, several characters monologue about a deep background story that explains their actions, but the information is too much, too late. Because relationships did not have much time to develop within the plot, the performance lacks the emotional investment needed from the audience to make the relationships truly matter.

Despite its drawbacks, Opera del West’s version of “La Clemenza di Tito” proves Mozart’s continuing relevance beyond his own time. Its updated plot and language may have bloated the original story, but the attempt provokes reflective thoughts about American political culture. Mozart’s compositions, performed beautifully by local Conservatory graduates, lift the production. But ultimately, the production suffers from its overambitious attempts to tackle too many topics in too little time.

—Staff writer Sophia N. Downs can be reached at sophia.downs@thecrimson.com.

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