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Review

Peter Sellars turns Mozart's last opera into a modern message of humanity in the face of terror

As the world reacted to news of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that ended with one participant driving his car into counter-protesters and killing a woman, a crowd in this picturesque city — once a favorite Nazi retreat — made an offering with flowers and candles.

The offering had ostensibly nothing — but in fact had everything — to do with Charlottesville. The laying of flowers and candles before the arcade of the Felsenreitschule (a riding school transformed into an arresting theater) came at the start of the second act of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” directed by Peter Sellars at the Salzburg Festival.

Former President Obama had responded to the Charlottesville news by tweeting quotes from Nelson Mandela, and it was Mandela whom Sellars cited a decade ago in discussing the need for a new look at Mozart’s last and little-loved opera. Mandela, Sellars said, attempted to break the cycles of racial violence with an “unexpectedly humane response to terrorism,” and in “Clemenza” the director makes the Roman emperor Titus, who forgives his assassins, a Mandela-like figure.

Great works of art are meant to be plumbed for insight into the human condition, and this “Clemenza” is examined so deeply in so many ways, it sets new standards for how to play Mozart, how to sing Mozart, how to stage Mozart, how to think about Mozart and, through the intense effort of doing all that, how to find cliché-free hope for humanity and just possibly the alternative to a world, our world, gone crazy. All the more remarkable is that this uncanny Mozartean transformation has happened in the composer’s birthplace, where Mozart can just as easily be reduced to kitsch, candy, cocktails or super-slick performances suitable for making high society feel superior.

Sellars and the extraordinary Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis have radically reimagined “Clemenza,” an act that might have seemed pretentious were the opera less flawed or the performance less motivated or the world less needy. At the same time Mozart was finishing “The Magic Flute,” he was commissioned to the write an opera in tribute to Austria’s Leopold II. “Clemenza” was dashed off in three weeks. The libretto was a tired paean to Titus as a symbol of forgiveness and generosity (ignoring his attempted genocide of the Jews, of course). Mozart had long since tossed out the archaic opera seria format.

Next to Mozart’s other late operas, character development here is weak. Motivations can seem trivial. The long, dry recitatives were outsourced.

Yet there are moments, in arias and ensembles, of ethereal beauty. Mozart offset his last days on Earth publicly sharing visions of utopia, but seething not far under the surface is the composer’s sense of political righteousness he still couldn’t express outright.

With Sellars, Mozartean subterfuge always sees the light of day. Rather than rely on trite love triangles to lead to an assassination attempt on Titus by an old lover and a schoolboy friend, the director makes that friend and his sister modern-day refugees. However much Titus resembles Mandela, he operates in the trappings of a police state. The dress is modern, as are the militia and suicide bombers. George Tsypin’s sets are mysteriously transparent cabinet-shaped sculptures that rise from the stage and, when lighted from inside, create the visual effect, in this context, of Mozart’s brain in operation.

Recitatives are severely cut and redone. Mozart’s music is messed with in many ways, particularly by inserting sections from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor as a kind of transcendental commentary.

Unlike Mozart’s original, in which Titus survives, the emperor in this retelling spends the second half of the opera in a hospital bed, profoundly coming to terms with betrayal and mortality. His final act is to find that Mandela state of forgiveness. Sellars’ “Clemenza” ends in communal act of people singing Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music.”

Ultimately, such idealism could never work on stage unless it could be proved. That proof was a gripping performance, more committed than any I have knowledge of in any Mozart opera, from a multicultural cast that compelled belief.

The men — Russell Thomas in the title role and Willard White as the Pretorian guard (here security minister) Publio — are well known from Sellars’ productions, including those with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The women — Golda Schultz, Christina Gansch, Marianne Crebassa and Jeanine De Bique — are all emerging singers. There was not a single note from any of them that did sound as though it mattered.

Behind everything is Currentzis and his MusicAeterna orchestra and chorus, which he founded and which are now in residence at Perm Opera in Russia. The orchestra uses period instruments and plays them with a finesse and vitality that has no equal. The musicians stand as they play. The aria “Parto, Parto” includes a solo by one of Mozart’s favorite instruments; for it the orchestra’s basset clarinetist joined Crebassa on stage in transfixing dance.

Currentzis is a micromanager on the level of, and seemingly with the genius of, Glenn Gould. His flamboyant conducting manner shares some of Gould’s physical eccentricities as well. And he also has a Gouldian virtuosity that takes your breath away, as he gets his players and his extraordinarily well-prepared chorus to produce the effect of a performer’s body and the sound produced being one and the same. In “Parto, Parto” singer was clarinetist and clarinetist, singer.

Three nights earlier I heard Currentzis conduct a stupendous performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, the players standing and bringing near operatic character to their individual parts. I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it.

The Mahler ended with the players joyously hugging one another and Currentzis hugging everyone within reach. “Clemenza” ended in hugs as well, particularly between chorus and soloists.

Sellars’ “Clemenza” travels to Berlin and Amsterdam, not America. But Sunday night it felt far more necessary than any opera an American company right now shows the nerve or capacity to produce. But the production does reach the world streamed on the medici.tv pay site for three months, after which a commercial video will be released.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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