Whether you like opera or not, or whether the music of Mozart appeals to you or not,  if you are living in the Los Angeles area you really owe it to yourself to see one of the remaining performances of LA Opera’s new production of The Clemency of Titus  (La Clemenza di Tito).  Los Angeles is obviously a city that is obsessed with visuals. In addition to Mozart’s always elegant and frequently stirring music, the visuals in this production are stunning.

Based in part on true events and focusing on an actual historical figure – Roman Emperor Titus (39-81 AD) – the story of the work centers on a plot to dethrone the ruler. The dimensions of the conspiracy are serious and at one point significant portions of Rome itself are burned down. The conspirators are ultimately caught and Titus must make a decision whether to grant them clemency or have them executed.  Things become complicated when it is revealed that Titus’ fiancée is a part of the conspiracy.

The Clemency of Titus was written in the last months of Mozart’s life in 1791. The work was commissioned to celebrate the coronation in Prague of Leopold II as King of Bohemia.  The opera was written under a tight deadline,  with some reports stating that it was completed in a mere 18 days.  In fact, because of the time constraints, it is thought that some of the less central music may have been written by one of Mozart’s pupils.

Tenor Russell Thomas as Titus leads a fine cast that artfully and inspiringly brings Mozart’s score to life. Conductor James Conlon also expertly leads a well-paced and sensitive performance, navigating the variety of emotion in the opera,  including the tension of a number of life and death decisions being made.

The sets (by Thaddeus Strassberger, who also directed) and costumes (by Mattie Ullrich) definitely enhance the vocal aspects of the production. A viewer has the impression that a Roman frieze or perhaps a classic painting of Roman society have come to life. And while I don’t pretend to be an expert on Roman culture, one has a definite impression of being immersed in a detailed ancient Roman environment for several hours.  And though the sets and costumes are striking, they are never garish or gaudy but can be characterized as subtle and nuanced.

At the performance that I attended as the curtain rose on Act 2, exposing the vivid smoldering ruins of Rome, spontaneous applause broke out before a note was sung. (Apparently, the pyrrhic special effects of the drama were worked on for over a year by a team of 100). As stated above,  the visuals in this production are impressive.

For those who may think that a Mozart opera about a Roman subject may be a little esoteric and difficult to grapple with, perhaps one way of viewing the work is as an 18th-century version of Game of Thrones in which political and romantic intrigues are laced with potentially deadly consequences. In a current political environment that could be politely described as harsh, the opera’s emphasis on compassion and magnanimity feels positively like a balm.

The LA Opera is presenting two more performances of The Clemency of Titus by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles – Saturday, March 16 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, March 24 at 2 pm.