La clemenza di Tito has long been thought of as one of Mozart’s less dazzling operas. Following its Prague premiere in September 1791, the Italian-born Empress Maria Luisa of Austria famously referred to it as una porcheria (“an obscenity”). Harsh judgement, particularly coming from the wife of the sovereign for whom it was composed. In return for 250 ducats, a considerable sum at the time, Mozart was commissioned to create a commemorative piece celebrating the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The composition was to be a classic opera seria despite the fact that the form was in widespread popular decline. And there was one other condition. The finished score was to be delivered in eighteen days.

Fortunately — or perhaps not so much — the poet Caterino Mazzolà had already produced a court-approved libretto adapted from a pre-existing La clemenza di Tito, a stuffy, feel-good treatise on imperial power written a decade earlier. There was no time to argue aesthetics. With pupil Franz Süssmayr enlisted to set the rambling dialogue to music, Mozart personally undertook the task of inventing no less than twenty-eight original arias, ensembles, marches, choruses and accompanied recitatives. It was a heroic undertaking that did nothing to bolster his health. Mozart fell ill in Prague during rehearsals. Three months later he was dead. He was thirty-five years old.

Had Wolfgang Amadeus not been the composer of record, La clemenza di Tito would likely have slipped into obscurity. The Canadian Opera Company’s winter 2013 production, imported from Chicago Opera Theater, has struggled to earn the wholehearted admiration of Toronto reviewers. Stage director Christopher Alden brings his signature idiosyncratic style to bear in a typically over-the-top effort to revitalize Mozart’s last opera. The resulting mayhem very nearly succeeds in smothering what precious life remains in the piece under a tangle of puzzling conceits.

Alden sets his production in a kind of timeshifted, limbo-centric Rome where skaterboi dude co-exists with armoured centurion — the ancient world transported to the present. Or is it the present world as seen from ancient Rome? In this reinvented, post modern Clemenza, the opera’s already unlikely story becomes even more improbable.

Act I. Vitellia, daughter of the recently deposed emperor, lusts for power. Unfortunately, her route to empress by way of marriage is blocked by the new ruler Tito’s choice of a foreign bride. Enraged by the rejection, Vitellia convinces her youthful admirer, Sesto, to avenge the insult and clear her way to the throne by killing the usurper. But Tito is not the tyrant Vitellia thinks. Having listened to the voice of his subjects, the emperor resolves to choose a high-born Roman instead of an outsider as his bride. He will marry Servilia, sister to Sesto, unaware that the beautiful noblewoman loves and is loved by Annio, Sesto’s closest friend. The heartsick Annio dares not oppose the emperor’s decree. Setting aside caution, brave Servilia reveals the true state of her affection. Tito relents. He will not force her hand in marriage against her will. The Lady Vitellia shall be his spouse. Receiving word of the stunning turn-about, Vitellia scrambles to recall Sesto from his deadly mission to murder Tito but it is too late. Sesto has set fire to the Capitol. Tito has surely perished.

Act II. Sesto’s speculation proves false. Tito lives. Sesto is arrested. Fearful of implicating Vitellia, the young would-be killer pleads sole responsibility for hatching the bungled assassination plot. Tito is thrown into a dilemma. To forgive his once cherished protégé is to be enlightened and loving. To sentence the confessed criminal to death is to serve Rome. Will the conflicted ruler sign the warrant?  No, he vows to himself in the secrecy of his imperial sanctum. He cannot execute the young man he has long adored. The populus Romanus must be told. Vitellia summons her courage and publicly reveals her hand in the attempted coup. Confused but ever merciful, Tito pardons one and all.

High concept meets High Baroque in Alden’s treatment of the tale. His is not a particularly unique take on opera seria. William Christie, Marc Minkowski, Rene Jacobs all have built their reputations as early opera interpreters on shaping new contexts for eighteenth century musical drama. The tactic can work well, re-energizing lesser, half-forgotten pieces if handled with intelligence and insight. La clemenza di Tito may not represent the brightest, most shining moment in opera history, but it deserves far more sympathetic treatment than it receives on stage at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. The haphazard layering of melodrama, farce, satire and slapstick on top of an already creaky story structure creates the equivalent of operatic slush, cold, sloppy and uninviting.

A reckless creative approach is only the start of this Clemenza’s problems. Artistic design, always an eye-opener in any modern regie-skewed opera, is more than merely surprising here. From lights up to blackout, sets, costumes, even props, are downright confounding. The red hotline phone Tito uses to pronounce sentence on Sesto seems to reference 1950s post war anxiety. The initial impression is short-lived. In the hands of director Alden’s twitchy emperor, the object evokes about as much compelling irony as a child’s play toy.

Looking at the production metaphorically is just as exasperating. The temptation is to interpret Tito’s basic wardrobe of purple, laurel-crested pyjamas as more than a decadent fashion statement. Are we witness to some sort of quasi REM sleep experience? But if the COC’s Clemenza really is intended to be seen as an extended dream, what are we to make of the opera’s central moral message? Mercy ennobles the noble? Is that a fantasy, too? The set, a stark faux travertine wall, suggests some sort of corporate grounding. A head office reception area. A bank. A skyscraper lobby, perhaps. Signpost or symbol, reality or reverie, we are left to flounder. Mercifully, there are some lifelines.

In an otherwise generally well-balanced cast lumbered with often heavy-handed, frequently embarrassing stage direction, American soprano Isabel Leonard towers above the chaos. Her performance as Sesto, the principal trouser role in the opera, is centred, dramatic, impassioned, her voice sinuous, sensual and lyrical. Her wrenching Act I lament, Parto, ma tu ben mio (“I go, but my beloved”), one of the few arias in Clemenza regularly extracted by soloists, is enormously moving and deeply credible, without a shadow of doubt the vocal high point of the entire production. In fact, so is Miss Leonard herself.

La clemenza di Tito’s resident evil villain, Vitellia, is portrayed in extremely broad strokes by Keri Alkema. Although usually described as a spinto-lyric soprano, her robust, wide-ranging instrument has a distinct contralto quality to it, a rare distinction in opera these days. Alkema’s singing is filled with great intensity and expansiveness, her top notes razor sharp, her lower range descending seemingly forever ending in a deep snarly growl. No one gestures quite so extravagantly or strikes a grander pose than this Vitellia. Whether or not Miss Alkema’s performance is a touch overwrought is a matter of opinion but when paired on stage with bass Robert Gleadow’s Publio, menacing captain of the guard, the two titanic voices spark some of the opera’s darkest, most sinister moments.

Wallis Giunta as Annio somewhat struggles with the physicality of her character, a slouchy, loose-limbed adolescent complete with headband and nerd glasses. At times her teenage impersonation lapses uncomfortably close to outright parody. There is, however, nothing remotely misaligned about Miss Giunta’s vocal engagement. More soprano than mezzo, her singing is consistently bright yet with an appealing warmth and roundness to her tone. The lovely lyrical Annio/Servilia duet, Ah perdona al primo affeto (“Ah, forgive my former love”) featuring Giunta and the always melodic Mireille Asselin, is exceptionally well-expressed by both artists. Pity conductor Daniel Cohen feels obliged to rush through the opera’s only other truly celebrated piece.

As Rome’s conscience-plagued ruler, tenor Michael Schade has earned high praise from audiences and critics alike. Regrettably, a recurrent bout of illness has forced Clemenza’s Tito to cancel a number of successive appearances, including the performance Opera Going Toronto attended. In Schade’s absence, understudy Owen McCausland, a first year member of the COC Ensemble Studio, has been tasked with keeping the role warm. Mr McCausland makes a fine effort but, grit and determination aside, the young singer actor’s voice is still very much a work in progress. There is every sign of a confident, vibrant performer to be but McCausland’s delivery still remains somewhat too pinched to do full justice to Mozart’s multi-hued music. Dramatic technique is similarly still in development.

The COC chorus sounds convincingly boisterous as Roman street rabble, their faceless identities pointed up by masks, their working class origins presumably revealed by grubby headscarves worn by men and women alike. The visual puns never end. The COC orchestra makes an honest attempt to power up Mozart’s hastily assembled score. Solo basset horn accompaniment, a new clarinet-like musical flavour in the late eighteenth century, is exceptionally fine, superbly played by principal performer James T. Shields.

Controversy has been a mainstay of this Clemenza by director Christopher Alden. Opera, particularly ragged old works, can sometimes look and sound better once they have been thoroughly overhauled. But this make-over goes too far. Alden’s treatment is blatantly disrespectful. Artists are made to look like comic caricatures. The audience is left disconnected. The opera experience is diminished.  Mozart builds fragile forms that call for sensitive treatment. This production tears them down and leaves only scattered debris.