A rousing “Tito” at Lyric

What: “La Clemenza di Tito”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: through March 23
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

La Clemenza di Tito” is a splendid example of Enlightenment thinking. The main theme is the exercise of power tempered by compassion. Tito rules Rome because his father wrested power from Vetellius in a civil war. The deposed ruler’s daughter, Vitellia, sees Tito’s rule as illegitimate but believes that things can be put aright if he marries her, thus making her empress.

But Tito asks Servilia for her hand in marriage. Enraged, Vitellia turns to Sesto — a man who both loves her and is devoted to Tito — and insists he murder the emperor. Consumed by his love for Vitellia, he agrees. And all hell breaks out.

Lyric Opera has brought David McVicar’s Aix-en-Provence production to Chicago with Marie Lambert, one of McVicar’s frequent collaborators, as director.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a revelation in the trouser role of Sesto. Her supple singing has plump sound at the top and stirring power in her middle range. Sesto’s omnipresent powerful emotions are exceptionally detailed and convincing.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani, a Wilmette native, is an engrossing Tito. His soaring sound and beautiful phrasing draw out the details of Mozart’s splendid score.

Mezzo Cecelia Hall (Annio, another trouser role) and soprano Emily Birson (Servilia) ably portray a couple caught in the crossfire. Bass-baritone Christian van Horn offers a commanding Publio, Tito’s right hand man. Hall and van Horn are Ryan Center alums and Birson a third-year Ryan member.

Soprano Amanda Majeski as Vitellia, is the only disappointment in the production. Her voice is at times thin at the top and when Mozart asks her to sing fairly low, her sound nearly disappears. Her acting is pallid rather than passionate.

Nine martial artists serve as Tito’s guard and their dancing with knives and swords is a masculine display of grace and terror.

Sir Andrew Davis draws glorious sound from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and the extended solos from Charlene Zimmerman (clarinet) in “Parto, Parto ma tu ben mio” and Linda A. Baker (basset horn) in “Non piu di fiori” are beguiling.

McVicar’s production sets the scene in the very early 19th century, effected mostly by moving walls which look like elaborate Lego projects. He says that “costuming the cast in this period seemed to me to make them more human and more accessible.” Maybe so, maybe not. It hardly helped that he additionally employed clichés such as putting the Good Girl in an all white dress and the Bad Girl in an all black one. (It also doesn’t help that Tito’s garb makes him look like a satin sausage.) And is it really the case that opera audiences are such dolts that they can’t understand and appreciate the human condition in Roman times?

The closing seconds may give you the vapors as this production has the martial artists and van Horn engaged in shenanigans well outside the libretto.