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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La clemenza di Tito

The Met revives Mozart's last opera seria.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Giuseppe Filianoti (center) sings the title role in the Met's revival of La clemenza di Tito.
Photo © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's La clemenza di Tito represents the composer's final effort in the genre of opera seria, the overwhelmingly popular style of the 18th century that drew thematic inspiration and its plots from the events and myths of classical antiquity. Composed in a rush of notes (Mozart had less than three months) for the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as the new king of Bohemia, the opera shares some parallels with Mozart's last opera, Die Zauberflöte.

The story of Tito makes the Roman emperor Titus out to be a mensch. Its source: an old libretto by Metastasio, based on an incident mentioned in Suetonius's Lives of the Roman Emperors. Tito (Giuseppe Filianoti) responds to a failed assassination attempt by forgiving the assassin. This was librettist Domenico Guardasoni's attempt to encourage Leopold to show similar clemency. The opera was finished in three months, just in time for the coronation. its premiere took place one hour after Leopold took the throne.

Alas, Leopold died six months later, so history never got a chance to find out what a nice guy he might have been.

Although the part of the emperor requires a powerful tenor, the key role of this opera is Sesto, the would-be assassin. The part, written for a virtuoso castrato, requires a mezzo-soprano of power and flexibility, capable of showing a wide range of emotion. Elina Garanča rises to the challenge in a role she has sung to great acclaim in Vienna. Also in on the plot: Vitellia, sung by soprano Barbara Frittoli. This is yet another revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's sturdy staging. Harry Bicket conducts.

La clemenza di Tito opens Nov. 16. The Met will broadcast this production as part of its Live in HD series on Dec. 1.
Recording Recommendations:

Like most of the operas of Mozart's maturity, Tito has been lucky on disc, and is available with both 20th century orchestral instruments and in a period performance. Here's one of each.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon, 1978)
Tito: Peter Schreier
Sesto: Julia Varady
Vitellia: Teresa Berganza
Karl Böhm was the consummate old-school Mozart conductor. This set, made under studio conditions as part of his complete cycle of the operas for DG comes in and out of print. Peter Schreier is a moving, noble Tito. Julia Varady is a spirited Vitellia. Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza may seem like odd casting in the role of the enthusiastic Sesto, but she cuts a compelling figure.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, cond. René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, 2005)
Tito: Mark Padmore
Sesto: Bernarda Fink
Vitellia: Alexandrina Pendatchanska
René Jacobs' recordings of Mozart operas divide listeners. These deluxe, detailed recreations of historical performance practices do not always have the tightest ensemble belaying or the best casts but they represent an authentic effort to get in touch with the composer's original intentions. Of course, some would say that Mozart's intent in writing this opera was to get the thing finished and get paid, but that would just be cynicism, no?

Return to the Superconductor 2012-2013 Metropolitan Opera Season Preview.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.