The current Mozart anniversary year has been an equal-opportunity recruiter, bringing not just the most beloved Mozart works to concert halls and opera houses, but also the less popular scores that don't get pulled off the shelf as often. Witness Opera Boston's capable new production of "La Clemenza di Tito," which opened Friday night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Critics and commentators, this one included, love to champion music that has been unjustly wronged by history, by politics, or by some vaguely sinister conspiracy of neglect. None of this really applies to "La Clemenza di Tito," an opera that Mozart wrote very quickly near the end of his life and a work that cannot compete with his most inspired creations. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera reports that its libretto by Metastasio had already been set by more than 40 other composers, and that Mozart was in such a hurry that he left many of the lengthy recitatives to be completed by another composer (probably Süssmayr ).
Then there is the silly plot. Set in first-century Rome, the opera tells the story of the Emperor Tito (Titus) and his jealous would-be lover Vitellia, who hatches a plan to assassinate him after he chooses another woman to be his wife. The murder attempt fails and the conspirators are caught but in the end everyone is pardoned by the almost farcically merciful Tito, who apparently had no trouble laying siege to all of Jerusalem but in this opera cannot bring himself to punish his would-be assassins.
Fortunately "Clemenza" has abundant musical charms that still make it well worth the journey, including the ravishing aria "Parto, parto" in which the vocal line is magnificently braided with obbligato clarinet. When all is said and done, we are still talking about Mozart, at the end of his life and at the peak of his powers.
The opera's more peripheral status probably made it attractive to Opera Boston, a company that admirably seeks out less-trafficked corridors of the repertory and had never before staged a work by Mozart. Brad Dalton's light-footed production deftly balances period and modern touches, with simple yet effective sets by David Newell that hint at ancient Rome and modern costumes by Nancy Leary that give the assassins a sleek look, more "Matrix" than Metastasio, as they slip under the curtain to pursue their prey.
In the title role, Paul Austin Kelly wielded a handsome if slightly thin tenor and his phrasing had a few choppy moments. Wendy Bryn Harmer, a member of the Met's young artists program, sung Vitellia with a big voice and a sassy attitude, though the lowest stretches of this difficult part did not sit easily. Phyllis Pancella was convincingly anguished and vocally impressive as Sesto, who is in love with Vitellia and shamelessly used to do her bidding. Krista River stood out in the smaller role of Annio thanks to her keen musical instincts and graceful, heartfelt singing. Kendra Colton and Kevin Deas were both solid in their respective roles as Servilia and Publio. Gil Rose kept things smoothly on track in the pit, though one wished at times that his tempos had a bit more supple give and take.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.