‘The Clemency of Titus,’ Mozart’s morality play about the enlightened leader
Russell Thomas as Emperor Titus. | Cory Weaver

LOS ANGELES—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Clemency of Titus (La Clemenza di Tito), dramatizes part of the life and reign of the Roman emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, who ruled from 79 to 81 CE. This work of historically inspired fiction with a libretto by Caterino Mazzola based on an earlier one by Pietro Metastasio, vividly brings ancient Rome alive with exquisite costumes by Mattie Ullrich (cum 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 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, an older formal style of opera on a serious classical theme, is a veritable soap opera, if not telenovela.

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 over whom he reigns. Titus searches for ways to ease, enlighten and lighten the load of leadership where, as Shakespeare pithily noted in Henry IV, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Especially when surrounded by sexual schemers, double-dealers, conspirators, and would-be assassins.

At the center lies the sensuous Vitellia (Guanqun Yu), who desires to become empress by marrying Titus. But they have, shall we say, a bit of a family history: Titus’s dear old dad brutally executed Vitellia’s father. To further complicate matters, the sexy Vitellia is screwing the brains out of Sesto (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong), to the point that Sesto is so brain-addled that the ignoble nobleman actually conspires to kill his besty Titus at her behest.

The Clemency of Tito. | Cory Weaver

Complications ensue, as Sesto’s pal, the infatuated Annio (mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven) announces his intentions to wed Sesto’s sister Servilia (soprano Janai Brugger). 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! Holy Jupiter!

All this happens by around the middle section of Act I of this two-hour and 40-minute sextravaganza, including one nail-biting intermission. Suffice it to say that by the second act, Titus walks a tightrope contending with riots and arson, a Mount Vesuvius eruption at Pompeii, conspiracies, navigating the tricky faction fights with regime hardliners such as his Chief Counselor Publio (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, heroic Titus tries to do the right thing.

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, 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, in Prague, Titus remains uncannily timely. LA Opera’s splendiferous version opened the same day that President Trump ranted and raved for two hours at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, hard by the U.S. Empire’s 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,” for whom the Romans would have built monuments to emoluments, Bernie looms like a latter-day Titus, full of benevolence and mercy for the people—and, to be sure, enmity for the power elite personified by Don-ligula.

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 shortly after the Titus premiere, had the gift of prophecy. 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? Perhaps that is one of the criteria of great art, that it outlives its creative moment and speak to the future.

Titus outlawed treason trials as one of his first acts upon taking office, 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 toward 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 publicly).

(Along with obstruction of justice, purported abuse of the pardoning power was charged against that other wannabe American emperor, Trickius Dickius. According to the House Judiciary Committee’s 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.”)

As Don-ligula was braying like a psychotic jackass at the dirty CPAC, I noticed that CNN, instead of covering the former reality TV star’s Nuremberg rally, the network instead televised Sanders’s 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 speech following a primary victory to Trump’s literally empty podium, as the cameras cooled their proverbial heels to await his eminence’s 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 install a would-be emperor who threatens the Fourth Estate as “enemies of the people,” “fake news,” and so on, jeopardizing journalists’ rights and safety?

Russell Thomas (right) as Titus, with Taylor Raven as Annio and Janai Brugger as Servilia, seated front. | Cory Weaver

Does Don-ligula’s defense of freedom of speech and humor (he was only “joking” about Russia finding and releasing—as opposed to, ahem, “capturing and killing”—Hillary’s emails) extend to SNL and the other comics he attacks and threatens? Does CPAC’s call for free speech on college campuses extend to proponents of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement aimed against Israeli ultra-militarism and, while we’re at it, for freedom of expression of Colin Kaepernick and other athlete protesters too? Or is the First Amendment solely for the emperor’s “brown-togas?”

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

Given Titus’s dark 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.”

The Clemency of Titus will be performed March 7, 13 and 16 at 7:30 pm, and March 10 and 24 at 2:00 pm at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012. For tickets and further information, see here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.