This performance confirmed me in a few longstanding opinions and made me rethink a few others. The production, billed as “new to Chicago,” is by David McVicar and for me it slotted in neatly with my pre-existing constellation of opinions about this opera. The costumes – empire-style dresses for the women and late 18th-century (somewhere between 1790 and 1815?) suits for the men – evoked a sense of classical revival, which of course what this opera is in several different senses.
The staging is consistent with that idea. The action takes place in a courtyard that looks like a side street in Rome, with a massive staircase (poor Joyce stumbled scrambling up it at high speed at one point) and a series of gratings and walls. The stairs, walls and gratings close in and open up at various appropriate moments – they are in place for the opera’s more intimate scenes, and move out and away at other points where a sense of space and relief is appropriate e.g. in act II’s climactic “se all’impero,” where Tito, having been tormented with doubt, decides to be merciful to Sesto and (we later learn) accept the consequences. When the gratings (a patchwork of grilles of different sizes and patterns) are in place and Tito’s guards are pacing back and forth in the background, Rome looks awfully like a prison.
And about those guards. When I saw that there were martial artists credited in the program, I wondered what it was they might be doing in this opera. Turns out they’re the imperial guard. We first meet them during the Act I march before the first chorus, where they engage in an elaborate dance, leaping and clashing their swords, and at two points punctuating the music with a yell. (I admit, the first time they all yelled “huh!” in time to the music, I had to stifle a giggle. And also the second time. It was funny. Though perhaps that was not the intention.) They appear as a group at several points, swords drawn. e.g. when they escort Sesto away in Act II. At the opera’s end, after the final chorus, they turn on Tito, pointing their swords at him. Resigned to his fate, he kneels.
I mentioned before that this production confirmed me in an opinion. My preference with this opera is for productions that go full tilt at the emotional content of the drama but at the same time frame it so that we see the constraints under which both the characters and the story itself operate. After all, Tito’s motives can be difficult to read in modern psychological terms, and if you play the seemingly happy ending as a straight-up happy ending, it can be unsatisfyingly bizarre. What McVicar’s production (directed here by Marie Lambert) does is to give Tito’s decision to be merciful some consequences. Tito’s guard turns on him and seem about to kill him as the opera ends – he’s sacrificed life and throne for friendship. His torment makes a little more sense: like Sesto and Vitellia, he has something to lose. Matthew Polenzani’s Tito gains steam as this aspect of the story becomes more evident. He’s really on his game during Act II, where we see not only clement Tito but angry handsy Tito who looms over and threatens Sesto, gripping him around his neck and grasping his shoulders. (There is a lot of angry neck-grabbing in this production – Sesto at one point does the same to Vitellia, punctuating the choke hold by slamming his hand against the wall. However, my observations of stage direction were limited by 1) listening with my eyes closed and 2) I think I need to get new contacts.) Tito’s “se all’impero” has the slightly manic relief perfectly appropriate for someone who has made a big decision that will have – as we soon learn – dire consequences.
As I listened to the overture, I was worried for a minute or two that the orchestral playing was going to lack bite. Conductor Andrew Davis did not do anything revolutionary with the music that I was able to detect, but there were moments – there always are in this opera – when something jumped to the fore that I hadn’t focused on before. This happened during bars 16-19 of the overture, where the triplets in the lower strings (the little emphasis/set up for the downward scales the violins are playing) jumped out at me; something similar happened during Sesto and Vitellia’s first duet, even though there was one brief little moment (“prima che sol tramonti”) where orchestra and Vitellia (Amanda Majeski) didn’t seem bang smack together. Later, near the beginning of Act II, I noticed how Publio’s part interacts with the lower strings, and there was a really nice moment in the middle section of “se all’impero” where Polenzani seemed to be almost conversing with the violins. The final chorus, though, wasn’t as huge and massive as I like. “Eterni dei” started off as if it was going to be huge and amazing, but it remained on a level – it didn’t get bigger or more terrifying as it went on. Pacing for climactic moments is probably one of those things that is really challenging to get quite right – and if you do, no one is going to notice, because it’s what supposed to happen.
On the subject of things that are supposed to happen. I was in the audience primarily to hear Joyce DiDonato’s Sesto, and between her and Majeski as Vitellia it was a very interesting evening. Is there such a thing as awesome fatigue? I’ve heard DiDonato live quite a few times now, and I think I may be chasing the dragon, in a sense that she’s as good as she always is, but I’m so used to it that it doesn’t stun me as much as it did the first time. Not that I would have given up my ticket for Friday by any means – the way the phrases in “parto, parto” slowly unwound and hung in the air was a thing of utter beauty. DiDonato always makes the cheapest seats worth twice the price, in that you don’t have to even be able to see her well in order to get your full value – the acting and expression is in every little detail of every note. (As a result, I don’t begrudge the man in front of me his head as much as I might have otherwise. It was in the way, and the size of it was such that had it been ever so slightly bigger, the gravitational microlensing effect of its mass on the light from the stage might have solved the problem from my perspective by transmitting to me a magnified and brightened image of the source.)
The singer who surprised me was Majeski. I’d never heard her before, and at the beginning of Act I, I had some doubts. Her Vitellia seemed rather anguished and agitated – there were lots of rather stagey tense hand gestures that didn’t do it for me in terms of acting and the notes seemed sometimes pushed slightly out of shape. She sounded a little stretched. But I found myself quite liking her in the ensembles, both the “guess what, Vitellia!” trio in Act I (a.k.a “vengo – aspettate – Sesto!”) and the later one with Publio and Sesto. By the end of Act II, both the voice and the interpretation had filled up the places where she seemed stretched before. The “ecco il punto” recitative was solid, gleaming drama from beginning to end, and “non più di fiori” was equally impressive. This is what I like about hearing performers that I’m not familiar with: I have no preoncieved notions, and as a result I think I sometimes hear them better than I do those from whom I know basically what to expect.