Despite its position among Mozart's compositions, La Clemenza di Tito has never had the same reputation or attention given to the Da Ponte operas that preceded it. Nor has it been as highly regarded as the other great works fo Mozart's last year: The Magic Flute, the Requiem, and the and the Clarinet Concerto. Before considering the reasons for the opera's neglect, let us set the stage for what was to be the revolutionary, prolific, and tragic year of 1791.
In the summer of 1791, the Austrian army is at war with the Ottoman Empire, Hungary is bristling with rebellious intentions, and Leopold II is to be crowned King of Bohemia in September. At the same time in Mozart's family, Wolfgang and Constanze's sixth and final child, Franz Zaver Wolfgang, is born, and Mozart is busy writing both The Magic Flute and the Requiem. At this point, a commission arrives for an opera on the occasion of the coronation of the Hapsburg emperor Leopold II. By September fifth, La Clemenza di Tito was complete. It was composed in about six weeks, and was copied, learned, and rehearsed in nine days!
Some of the reasons for the opera's neglect are the commission's political intent as well as the difficulty in engaging with the principal character. The objective of the commission was to extol the generosity and clemency of the divinely elected monarch at a time of great national insecuirty. These qualities have to be exercised by Tito immediately upon being appointed ruler. Depsite the opera's title, Sesto, not Tito, is in many ways its principal character: it's the conflicts and decisions that put him in opposition to his friend and ruler that give deeper meaning.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to the initial success of La Clemenza di Tito was the formulaic, even archaic, opera seria form that Mozart had seemingly abandoned. Leopold's Empress infamously declared La Clemenza di Tito to be a 'porcheria tedesca' - German rubbish. And numerous 20th century critics, such as William Mann, have judged that "as drama it is no great shakes." Charles Rosen declared that "it's difficult to convey how unmemorable it is" Opera seria means recitative - tons of it - so much that Mozart, under the pressure of a deadline, apparently "outsourced" the writing of the recitatives to his student Süssmayr! For years, conductors and directors have struggled with what to do with all the necessary, but somewhat stilted recitative. The earliest recording of the work - with Nicolai Gedda in the title-role, and conducted by Joseph Keilberth - dispensed with every last note of recitative, substituting a narrative instead. In 1991, Glyndebourne commisoned Stephen Oliver to re-write the recitatives. In this spirit, today's performance features a narration written and performed by Susan Larson.
During the last years of Mozart's life in Vienna, his musical friendship with the Austrian clarinet virtuoso, Anton Stadler, flourished. Mozart composed the Quintet for Clarient and Strings, K. 581 (1790) and his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622 (1791) for Stadler. No doubt the bassett horn writing in the Requieum, K. 626 (1790) was also for Stadler. No other player dominated the Viennese musical scene of this era quite the way Stadler did. His rich, full tone was frequently commended, as was his ability to "imitate the human voice" and to change registers quickly and "with remarkable ease." It is this similarity to the human voice and his esteem for Stadler that inspired Mozart to write two arias in La Clemenza di Tito for voice and virtuosos clarifty - "Parto, ma tu ben mio" for Sesto in Act 1 and "Non piu di fiori" for Vitellia. Given the affinity between voice and clarinet, the deep musical impression acheived is that of a dialogue with one's soul.
Mazzolá's libretto is not only a fast-moving, tumultuous plot, but in the hands of Mozart is also a human drama of profound relationships. The plot is driven by music that is at times ablaze and impassioned, while at others utterly sublime. The characters are multidimensional. In the character of Sesto are focused two of humanity's fiercest passions: that of sexual love for Vitellia, and that of profound freindship and loyalty to Tito. Vitellia is no one-dimensional, demonized characterization. She is haunted and hunted by her own inner furies, yet in the end reveals dormant virtue. Her vocal ornamentation highlights every spasm of her tormented conscience. Even Tito is a flawed character, beset by self-doubt and a weakness that emanates from a naïve view of humanity. Listen to the way his music of consonance is at times harmonically disrupted, often in a disturbing way.
Mozart, not surprisingly, uses these complex and multidimensional relationships as the foundation for his poignant music that transcends the sterotypes of opera seria. Woven into the musical fabric are the underlying themes of power, self-knowledge, forgiveness, and reconcilation that strike at the core of the human condition.
- Ryan Turner (2012)