Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

English Touring Opera | Richard Lewis, James Conway, Mark Wilde, Gillian Ramm, Rhona McKail, Julia Riley, Charlotte Stephenson, Philip Spendley | Grand Opera House, Belfast - May 28, 2011

Despite its position among Mozart’s compositions, his penultimate opera La Clemenza di Tito has never had the same reputation or attention given to the Mozart and Da Ponte operas that preceded it, nor has it been as highly regarded as the other final works written around the same time – the Requiem and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Part of the reason for the opera’s neglect has been due to the history of its composition – it was commissioned for the coronation of the Hapsburg emperor Leopold II in 1791 – and the fact that it accordingly has a rather dry historical subject, performed moreover in the opera seria style that what was rather old-fashioned even then. While the rather dry and serious nature of the drama wasn’t entirely overcome in the English Touring Opera’s staging for their Spring 2011 tour, La Clemenza di Tito is nonetheless a late Mozart work, which means Mozart in his prime.

Perhaps not unexpectedly for Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito is a little bit more than a typical opera seria, where the action is usually limited to plot developments that take place during the dry recitative (ie. spoken dialogue), which is then meditated upon in flowery terms through long repetitive da capo arias. The problem with this is that the plot can tend to become quite complicated and, since it is mostly delivered through dialogue than action or acting, difficult to follow. There are certainly complications in the plot of La Clemenza di Tito, which deals with the history of the Roman Emperor Titus Vespasianus in 78AD, where the usual operatic love complications of trying to match up couples takes on a rather more serious aspect of political manoeuvring – but the plot – the text derived from an old Metastasio libretto that had been used many times – has been stripped back of superfluous subplots (not to mention numerous long arias), and any remaining complications are made rather more easy to follow through Mozart’s sympathetic consideration of the characters through his beautiful musical arrangements.

Tito

Principally however, the complications that arise in the plot all serve the purpose of the nature of the commission for the coronation of Leopold II, which is to show how a noble ruler should behave in the face of challenges, exercising compassion and understanding and putting his people’s interests before his own. In La Clemenza di Tito, those qualities have to be exercised by Titus immediately upon being appointed ruler, the previous despot Vitellius having just been overthrown. Aware that his consort Berenice, a Judean, is unlikely to be welcomed as his mistress, Titus sends her away and chooses to marry Servilla, the sister of his friend and comrade Sextus. Vitellia is furious at the news, as she expected to be chosen to rule alongside Titus, and she urges Sextus, who is in love with her, to stir up a rebellion against the new leader. When Titus finds out that Servilla is already betrothed to Annius, a friend of Sextus, he reconsiders and agrees to marry Vitellia, but an insurrection against Titus has already started that will require all his diplomacy and clemency to resolve.

Part of the difficulty with engaging with La Clemenza di Tito is that it is difficult to relate to the principal character of the opera. Titus, although he is certainly conflicted by the choices he has to make, and contemplates them in some very beautiful arias, does however feel more of a symbol or a model of virtue and never comes to life as a real person. As the director of the English Touring Opera’s production James Conway notes however in the programme notes “You know you can love La Clemenza di Tito if you love Sextus”, and there is some truth in this. Despite the title of the opera, it’s not Titus who in many ways is not the principal character but Sextus, and it’s the conflicts and decisions that put him in opposition to his friend and ruler that the listener needs to relate to in order for the opera to have deeper meaning. If we are to go along with that proposition, the opera needs a strong singer in the role of Sextus (a tricky proposition since it is male soprano role often sung, as here, by a female), and that is indeed marvellously achieved here in a terrific performance by Julia Riley.

This is an interesting proposition from the ETO, and placing the emphasis this way on Sextus certainly presents an alternative way of looking at the opera, but I am not entirely convinced that it is enough. Titus is a difficult character to relate to, but he can be made more sympathetic with the right singer (I’ve seen the role extremely well performed in a production at the Paris Opera some time ago), and although Mark Wilde sings well here and is appropriately soft-toned lyrical tenor for a thoughtful, considerate ruler, it’s not sufficient to convey the depth of the nature of the personal conflicts he undergoes nor the nobility and wisdom that he shows in the decisions towards the clemency that he exercises at the close of the drama. With minimal staging and a lack of dramatic action, there wasn’t any other way of making these feelings apparent, and the opera did indeed often feel like its reputation as a dry, difficult and overly-earnest work was merited. The English Touring Opera’s production, resting on the strengths of Sextus with Julia Riley in the role, did however present an interesting view on an opera that certainly merits being brought to a wider audience and that is certainly preferable to another new production of The Marriage of Figaro or Così Fan Tutte.