Mozart's Opera Clemenza di Tito at the Met
Enduring Appeal of Mozart's Oddball Opera
By ZACHARY WOOLFE
FOR much of its history Mozart's final opera, "La Clemenza di Tito,"
which was mostly composed after "Die Zauberflöte" but performed
before it, has been thought to be, frankly, not so good.
After its premiere in 1791, as part of the coronation of Leopold II
as king of Bohemia, the new queen, Maria Luisa, opined that "the big
opera was nothing special, and the music very bad, so nearly all of
us slept through it."
As august a modern critic as Charles Rosen once wrote that while the
music of "La Clemenza di Tito," which opens in an excitingly cast
revival at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening, is "never less
than beautiful," it fails dramatically. "It is difficult," he wrote,
"to convey how unmemorable it is."
We like to think that in their late works composers reach new levels
of sophistication, pushing toward innovations that are ahead of
their time. But "La Clemenza di Tito" ("The Clemency of Titus") was
in certain ways a step backward for Mozart, at least in terms of its
It is an opera seria, a work in a highly stylized, rule-driven genre
that Mozart had barely touched in his career and one that by the
late 18th century had grown fusty. He may have taken on the
assignment because of the prestige of the commission (not to mention
the fee); it was almost as if a screenwriter in 2012 were asked for
a radio play.
"La Clemenza di Tito" has also suffered in public and critical
estimation because it came close on the heels of the three great
operas Mozart wrote with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte: "Le Nozze
di Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Così Fan Tutte." The characters and
themes of those rich, subtle, ironic works are tantalizingly close
to today's preoccupations; their tone and attitude is unmistakably
"La Clemenza di Tito," by contrast, seems staid and dated, its plot
didactic and unsophisticated: The uncomplicatedly beneficent Roman
emperor Titus uncovers an assassination plot against him planned by
his close friend and fiancée, and he pardons them both in a grand
final show of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The Mozart-Da Ponte operas also appeal to contemporary audiences
because we are invested in thinking of artists as free agents, in
believing that the best creative work is done under the loosest
constraints. It is true that Mozart's operatic career was largely
defined by his ability to choose his own librettos. We distrust the
restrictions of a rigid form like opera seria.
In this sense too "Clemenza" offends our sensibilities. Pietro
Metastasio's 1734 libretto was a classic of opera seria, its elegant
poetry placed in the service of a precise, preordained series of
arias. It had been set to music dozens of times in the six decades
before Mozart got to it. It did not afford the rich, unique
collaboration he had with Da Ponte. It seems suspiciously less like
a labor of love than like, well, a job.
But it's hard to listen to this eloquent, passionate opera and hear
it as merely a job that Mozart got through. Experiencing the work
makes the longstanding assumptions about it seem faintly ridiculous:
"La Clemenza di Tito" turns out to be stranger and deeper than we
have been told.
Metastasio's libretto was revised by Caterino Mazzola, presumably to
Mozart's specifications. It was cut and adapted in ways that stretch
the conventions of opera seria: ensembles were added to Metastasio's
aria-centered text, the plot was streamlined, and crucial numbers
were interpolated, of a style and complexity that is, in a word,
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggests that the opera is more a
continuation and deepening of the themes of Mozart's career than a
divergence or regression from them. "The entire canon of Mozart's
great operas," Mr. Zizek writes, "can be read as the deployment of
the motif of pardon, of dispensing mercy, in all its variations."
"Die Zauberflöte," for one, written in such proximity to "La
Clemenza di Tito," could be renamed "The Clemency of Sarastro."
In the much-noted stability of "La Clemenza di Tito" Mr. Zizek
identifies troubling undercurrents. More than in the other canonical
Mozart works there is a too-muchness to the opera's cycles of
transgression and forgiveness, power defined solely as the constant
exercise of clemency. "The ridiculous proliferation of mercy in
'Clemenza,' " Mr. Zizek writes, "means that power no longer
functions in a normal way, so that it has to be sustained by mercy
all the time."
The surface perfection of the music is a thin veneer atop a world
defined by death and fear, as in the eerily hushed rumblings and
muted cries of the remarkable ensemble that ends the first act, when
the Roman capitol burns. The work combines, in a new and sometimes
awkward way, the basic structure of opera seria with the ensembles
characteristic of newer operatic genres and even the short, piquant
melodies of singspiels like "Die Zauberflöte."
So it is no surprise that there are odd juxtapositions in the
opera's numbers themselves. The two most important arias, both added
in Mozart and Mazzola's revision to Metastasio, similarly graft the
conspirators' longing for death onto music that can seem
beautifully, bizarrely pastoral. Sesto, the emperor's friend and
betrayer, sings in "Deh per questo istante solo" of deep regret in a
tone as oddly passive as a prepared statement.
But rather than being dull this sense of division between what is
being said and how it is being said is fascinating, as it is in
Vitellia's "Non più di fiori," a gentle exhalation that belies the
death-drive intensity of her words.
We remain always, in "Clemenza," all too aware of the specter of
artificiality; the sense that the characters, on some level, are
self-conscious of the roles they are performing may account for why
the opera has unsettled and disappointed so many over the years.
Considering that blurriness in the line between fiction and reality
is our condition, the opera, seemingly a relic, speaks as powerfully
and disturbingly as Mozart's more popular works to our time.