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Lush, Nuanced Mozart Opera at BU Theatre

CFA puts on rarely produced Clemenza di Tito

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Completed just months before Mozart’s death in 1791, his opera La Clemenza di Tito has been largely overlooked over the centuries, dismissed as a commission the financially strapped composer did mainly for the money. The infrequently produced work has been eclipsed by the composer’s operatic masterpieces Il Nozze de Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. But the demanding, nuanced Clemenza, laced with beautiful arias, extensive recitative, and a lush choral score, beckoned to William Lumpkin, acting director of BU’s Opera Institute. Along with guest stage director Daniel Pelzig, Lumpkin brought the opera to the BU Theatre in April in a production that showcased more of the institute’s vocal talent than any in the program’s history.

“It’s a unique piece dramatically,” says Lumpkin, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of music. Clemenza was commissioned for an emperor’s coronation and is unlike the perennially staged comedic Mozart operas Figaro and Cosi fan Tutte. “The arias are somewhat monumental, real moments frozen in time, and the choruses are so beautiful.” The most well known of the arias, stirring Parto, Parto, Ma Tu Ben Mio, is standard fare of recorded collections of Mozart songs.

Boston University BU, theatre, Mozart opera, La Clemenza di Tito, Lauren Lyles, Vera Savage, College of Fine Arts CFA

Heejae Kim (CFA’14) (from left), Lauren Lyles (CFA’13), and Jacquelyn Kress (CFA‘13) perform in the College of Fine Arts production of the Mozart opera La Clemenza di Tito.

The opera was a joint production of the School of Music and the School of Theatre. It is set in 18th-century Prague, the city that embraced and championed the work of the Austrian-born Mozart, and where Clemenza premiered. Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the opera is a tale of love, revenge, and ultimately mercy that swirls around the benevolent Roman Emperor Titus, whose years of rule, AD 79 to 81, saw the completion of the Coliseum and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. With four performances by alternating lead casts, the opera featured tenors Christopher Hutchinson (CFA’14) and Heejae Kim (CFA’14) as Tito, sopranos Celeste Fraser (CFA’13) and Ji Eun Park (CFA’14) as the vengeful Vitellia, daughter of deposed emperor Vitellio, Tito’s predecessor. In pants roles, in which a woman plays a man, mezzo-sopranos Lauren Lyles (CFA’13) and Vera Savage (CFA’14) portray Sesto, who is in love with Vitellia and whom she coaxes into killing Tito on her behalf.

“Every character has a very big range to work with and has had to learn that level of perfection, while still giving a performance with the drama and passion the roles require,” says Lyles, who has sung major roles in several CFA operas, among them Domenico Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto.

Boston University BU, theatre, Mozart opera, La Clemenza di Tito, Lauren Lyles, Vera Savage, College of Fine Arts CFA

Ji Eun Park (CFA’14) (left) and Lyles as Vitellia and Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito.

Compelling in part because it is based on historical events, Clemenza “requires a lot of the tenors in terms of agility,” says Hutchinson. “You have to have the stamina for the role and the ability to give nuanced performances of more delicate arias as well as coloratura.” Hutchinson sang the role of Alfredo in the CFA 2012 Fringe Festival’s innovative concert performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

A true ensemble piece with several strong roles and moments of “raging emotion”—particularly with respect to the part of Vitellia, Lumpkin says, the opera has also been a powerful learning tool for the artists in the Opera Institute’s intensive two-year program. Savage and Lyles describe it as one of the biggest musical and theatrical challenges they’ve embraced.

“I think it’s so unbelievably glorious,” says Pelzig, who has worked on many major operas, including Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Rossini’s Armida at the Metropolitan Opera and directed and choreographed The Bartered Bride for Opera Boston. Despite his extensive experience in opera, this production is the first time he’s directed a Mozart opera. Opera fans may have seen the Metropolitan Opera production of Clemenza that was streamed live to movie theaters around the world in December 2012 as part of its Live in HD series.

In addition to 12 principals, the Opera Institute production had a 36-member chorus and a 40-member orchestra. The School of Theatre design collaborative has created an 18th-century set and costumes that “streamlined the traditionally frilly rococo period in a way that works with the clean lines of the scenic design,” says costume designer Raissa Bretana (CFA’13).

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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