HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Mozart as dramatist and humanist was on intimate, generous, and compelling display at the Ravinia Festival in back-to-back concert presentations of two perhaps improbably paired operas, Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito. Where Don Giovanni showcases Mozart in earthy proto-Romanticism, a rough-and-tumble clash of characters sketched with almost verismo authenticity, La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s penultimate opera, written simultaneously with The Magic Flute, is a throw-back to Handel and the formality of Baroque opera seria. Yet both works, conducted by James Conlon with two superb casts and half-size complements of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, made for thrilling theater — the very experience of music-drama that Wagner embraced as the operatic ideal.
Neither performance in Ravinia’s 800-seat Martin Theatre, Don Giovanni on Aug. 11 and La clemenza di Tito on Aug. 12, felt anything like a “concert version.” These were full-blown dramatic performances, each with its own stage director, both populated by wholly engaged casts and, notably in the case of Don Giovanni, fiercely acted. This despite the nearly total absence of sets, the use of minimal props, and the singers’ appearance in concert attire. Taken together, the two experiences afforded an illuminating Mozart immersion. The immediacy of Don Giovanni in that small venue brought its scale down to rare specificity, and Clemenza was rare in any case, powerfully argued here as an undervalued masterpiece.
Ravinia’s Don Giovanni became fraught with drama well before the overture sounded. Two cast members tested positive for Covid, which forced 11th-hour announcements of soprano Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira and baritone Brandon Cedel as Leporello. At least they could be credited in a program insert.
Too late even for that, the production also lost its Zerlina to Covid. Soprano Janai Brugger, already cast as Servilia in Clemenza, saved the day by agreeing to sing the role Zerlina as well — which meant four consecutive performances for her, as each opera was given twice on alternate nights.
You would have had a hard time pointing to the stand-ins in a cast where everyone was singing off-book. There wasn’t a vocal score to be seen. Still, the pillar of this enterprise was the scheduled Giovanni, baritone Lucas Meachem. Here was one poised, self-assured rake, as seductive as he was dangerous, grand and supple of voice, supreme in his physical presence. Meachem and Cedel, a marvelously cynical and droll Leoporello, made a great team. If Cedel pushed mugging to the limit, he never crossed the line into mere slapstick. His wry, potently voiced catalog aria summarizing Don Giovanni’s international conquests was a roguish delight.
This “concert version,” directed by Garnett Bruce, would provide a worthy model for any fully staged production. Whether in amorous entanglements or violent confrontations, the concert-clad singing actors were full-on, hands-on at each other. We were watching the real thing, a play, supported brilliantly by a distillation of Chicago Symphony forces.
Majeski cut a proud, albeit vulnerable, Donna Elvira, in splendid voice and properly patrician rapport with every other character of high rank or low. As Donna Anna and her hapless, if not feckless, betrothed Don Ottavio, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and tenor Saimir Pirgu brought winning voices to go with a real grasp of the couple’s dubious prospects for ever actually marrying. The show’s last-minute Zerlina, Brugger, and baritone Brent Michael Smith as her bumpkin bridegroom Masetto, were handsomely matched vocally, amorously, and as partners in comedy.
So how does a concert presentation of Don Giovanni deal with the Stone Guest — the great statue of the Commendatore, slain by Giovanni only to show up, stone-faced, for dinner? It’s pretty much always an awkward contrivance. No problem here. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson embodied the Commendatore first to last. He just happens to be dead the last time he shows up, a human-scaled zombie who leads the defiant but struggling Giovanni off the stage to his eternal payback. I loved it.
The Apollo Chorus of Chicago, clad in black, did not line up behind the orchestra but rather formed up as needed, off the stage but in view. The ensemble directed by Stephen Alltop sang with equal parts of brio and authority. Kudos as well to harpsichordist Vlad Iftinca, who accompanied the secco recitative with stylish elegance.
There is a tenuous historical connection between Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito. Both had their world premieres in Prague, Don Giovanni in 1787 and Clemenza in 1791, just three months before Mozart’s death at age 35. Otherwise, if one sets aside Mozart’s unfailing sensibility as a portraitist of the human condition, the two works have little in common. That said, La clemenza di Tito reveals striking echoes of The Magic Flute, in which Mozart was deeply immersed but set aside to accept the commission from Prague to write an opera for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia.
La clemenza di Tito — or The Clemency of Titus — was sort of the go-to opera text for celebrating newly installed monarchs in the 18th century. Tito is no tyrant, but rather a swell fellow who is forgiving to a fault. There was really nothing too heinous that one could do to Tito that he would not shrug off as a lapse in judgment on the perpetrator’s part. In this case, it’s an assassination plot devised by Vitellia, who lusts after the crown, and her malleable lover Sesto, who happens to be Tito’s BFF. Also in the mix are two young lovers, Annio and Servilia. In another flourish of his generous spirit, Tito, who has decided to make Servilia his bride, waives his prerogative when the lass informs him that her heart will forever belong to Annio.
If the story is less than gripping, Mozart’s musical characterizations carry the day. Even within the framework of the formal set pieces of opera seria, Mozart manages to show us human hearts and yearning and frailty worthy of characters from The Marriage of Figaro or The Magic Flute or, indeed, Don Giovanni. Nor does Clemenza lack energy or drive. The brilliant overture with its martial bearing suggested another Prague connection, Mozart’s 38th Symphony, called “the Prague” because it had its world premiere there, also in 1787, several months before Don Giovanni.
The dramatic rub in La clemenza di Tito is Vitellia’s mortification when she learns that the king has excused Servilia so that she can marry Annio and decided, after all, to marry Vitellia — who, oops, has already set the king’s assassination in motion, at the hands of Sesto. Amid flames and tumult, the attempt is made on Tito’s life, but he survives. Sesto confesses, then Vitellia admits to instigating the whole thing. Tito agonizes quite a lot but finally decides not only to forgive but to forget. “It never happened. It’s all good.” Or words to that effect.
Tito, the old softy, brings to mind the sensitive, dreamy Henry VI in Shakespeare’s trilogy. Kings really need to be forged from sterner stuff. I’m not sure Tito can be made convincing. While tenor Matthew Polenzani sang with his typical burnished sound, in this instance I had the feeling that full sets and costumes — a visually rich milieu for his musings — might have helped. But I didn’t have the same misgivings elsewhere, among characters who are less problematic.
Soprano Guanqun Yu’s simmering, impatient, impulsive Vitellia was gorgeously sung, roundly humanized and fascinating. Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo all but stole the show as the conflicted Sesto, singing magnificently, torn between friendship and duty on the one hand and his love for Vitellia on the other. Almost lost in the hurly-burly, a bit like Ottavio in Don Giovanni, is Servilia’s betrothed Annio, another trouser role, delivered with earnest intent and pliant voice by Ashley Dixon. Kristinn Sigmundsson, the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, brought a welcome factor of gravitas to the military general Publio.
Again, the Apollo Chorus of Chicago provided expressive commentary, and here the expert harpsichordist was Louis Lohraseb. In keeping with the throwback style of this opera seria, stage director Harry Silverstein observed greater physical restraint than was seen in Don Giovanni. Rhetoric stood in for action. In both productions, I was aware of Conlon as mid-action observer during the secco recitatives. He seemed to revel as occupant of the best vantage point in the house. But in that cozy space, I was very happy soaking in Mozart from the fifth row.