If there were any parallels to be drawn at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night when LA Opera's new production of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito debuted, between Rome in the first century under Emperor Titus and the United States two millennia later under Emperor Trump, they were lost in a Tinseltown graphic novel sweep. It was far more convincing as just a brilliant if wayward affirmation of the Enlightened Ruler which Leopold II was celebrating being at his coronation as King of Bohemia in Prague in 1791. The world was changing, however. Three months later Mozart would be dead; two years later, Leopold's sister, Marie-Antoinette, was beheaded. Mozart's Clemenza was one of the last of a dying breed.

Russell Thomas (Tito) © Cory Weaver | LA Opera
Russell Thomas (Tito)
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

In trying to inject something relevant to modern audiences into Mozart's pure opera seria formality, director Thaddeus Strassberger (who also wrote the English supertitles) went for a monumental kind of cinematic Cleopatra style – more Elizabeth Taylor than Claudette Colbert – with lots of wonderful costumes and sets in which everything was beautiful, grandiose and yet rich with dramatic energy. The opening curtain was all about visual grandeur in creating tableaux of paintings within frames within frames, and a flow derived from windows opening, which compensated for the basically static energy of a cast basically standing around and singing in a dazzling range of Mattie Ullrich's lavish costumes including a gown worn by Vitellia with a 25-foot long train. The climactic burning of Rome at the finale of Act 1 is created through the combined artistry of lighting designer JAX Messenger and projection designer Greg Emetaz, making their LA Opera debuts. The haunted shell of the city opening Act 2 elicited waves of applause.

Guanqun Yu (Vitellia) © Cory Weaver | LA Opera
Guanqun Yu (Vitellia)
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

The singing was uniformly excellent, stylish and well-informed in Mozartian style but overall making for a rather bland set of voices. Russell Thomas' Tito was moving if not totally commanding; he was particularly eloquent in laying out the philosophical points by which he set his moral compass. Contrasted to the rest of the cast Guanqun Yu's Vitellia and Elizabeth DeShong's Sesto were both spectacular in an over-the-top sort of way, with DeShong taking her triplets in "Parto, parto" at breakneck speed. Along with Janai Brugger's Servilia and Taylor Raven's Annio, the excellent ensemble work even developed a semblance of character development.

Russell Thomas (Tito) © Cory Weaver | LA Opera
Russell Thomas (Tito)
© Cory Weaver | LA Opera

The LA Opera Orchestra did its usual tremendous job of presenting Mozart at his ceremonial best with Conlon always attentive to the singers; Conlon seemed to be pushing matters ahead more than was alway seemly, however, as if he were concerned that interest might flag. The great introductory March in Act 1, for example – perhaps Mozart's last great march – was unaccountably fast and trivial, unintentionally resembling another famous Hollywood scene, the iconic knighting sequence in Danny Kaye's film comedy The Court Jester.

***11