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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: La clemenza di Tito

A plea for mercy or expediency in Mozart's final opera seria.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Roman Emperor Titus. Portrait by Bernardino Campi. 
It's funny how necessity can make an artist productive. That was the case in 1791, the last year of Mozart's life. In July, the composer (already hard at work on a new piece called Die Zauberflöte) received a commission from one Domenico Guardasoni, to write a new opera celebrating the impending coronation of Leopold II. The Hapsburg ruler was already the Holy Roman Emperor, and he was about to be installed as as the King of Bohemia. The result, banged out in just 18 days was La clemenza di Tito, which premiered in Prague on Sept. 6. The opera represents Mozart's last thoughts on the genre of opera seria--he died on December 5 of that same year.

Metistasio's depiction of an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman Emperor Titus and his subsequent leniency is based on an incident loosely reported in the writings of Suetonius. It was a popular subject, set by forty different opera composers in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly those who wanted to show their royal or aristocratic patrons in the most flattering light. Here's some historical background.

In 1791, the people of Bohemia were within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Technically, Leopold II was already its ruler. The reason for the second coronation was to legitimize his authority in the eyes of the Czech populace of that country, and to act as a firebreak against any possible outburst of revolution that had happened two years before in France. (Leopold's sister was Marie Antoinette, who would go to the guillotine in 1793.)

The story of La clemenza di Tito ("The Clemency of Titus") seems to say "Hey look, aristocrat aren't all bad, and they can forgive you if you decide to rebel against them as long as you don't start chopping off their heads." It makes the Emperor Titus  the central figure, a just and reasonable man who is unafraid to exercise royal authority. (Nothing is mentioned about how he would later sack Jerusalem.) The Emperor is surrounded by a collection of aristocrats that are all connected in some way to Vitellius, a previous Emperor who reigned for eight months during 69 AD, the chaotic Year of Four Emperors that followed the death of the Emperor Nero. Vitellius, for the historical record was killed by troops supporting Vespasian, Titus' father, and now his family wants revenge.

That attempted revenge is...what else?...an assassination plot, masterminded by Vitellius' daughter Vitellia and to be  carried out by Sesto, whose motive is that he does not want his sister Servilia marrying the Emperor. This all comes to a head at the end of the first act, when the Capitol burns and Tito is reported dead. In the second act, Sesto is imprisoned, and the conspirators are going to be thrown to wild beasts in the Emperor's newly built Colosseum. Vitellia confesses and the Emperor, true to the opera's title, forgives all.

Given the tight deadline of the coronation, Mozart only had time to write the opera's arias. He added  choruses and ensembles as needed, with the new text written by librettist Caterino Mazzolà. (It is speculated that the recitatives were assembled by his pupil, one Franz Xaver Süssmayr.) The opera has a rousing overture, memorable arias (particularly Sesto's "Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio" and Vitallia's burn-the-house-down rondo "Non più di fiori") and some of Mozart's most sophisticated writing for ensemble voice, including the fiery Act I finale.

La clemenza di Tito is hardly a curiosity, but it is not sung and staged as often as the three Da Ponte operas or The Magic Flute. However, a number of great Mozart recordings have taken a crack at it over the years, producing an impressive discography to sort through. Here are five reliable recordings that I've actually listened to over the years. Three are with modern orchestras and two are on period instruments. Your mileage may vary.

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden cond. Colin Davis (Philips/London 1976)
The reliable Colin Davis made one of the best entries in his cycle of Mozart operas when he recorded Clemenza for Philips in 1976. This is a mostly British and American cast, with Janet Baker, Yvonne Minton, Frederica von Stade and Lucia Popp in the leads. Stuart Burrows is a reliable presence as Tito.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon 1978)
This recording made with the great Dresden orchestra was one of the last Mozart recordings that Karl Böhm made. He was 84 when it was released. DG was able to recruit an international cast, with Teresa Berganza as interesting choice for Sesto and Peter Schreier in peak form in the title role. Julia Varady is Vitellia.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv 1990)
John Eliot Gardiner's Mozart recordings were among the most successful results of the "period instrument" movement that got listeners interested in hearing these works on 18th century instruments and as-accurate-as-possible reproductions. This superb entry in the series stars the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role and Sesto is the reliable trouser player Anne Sofie von Otter. Excellent.

Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (DG, 2005)
The late Sir Charles Mackerras was one of the great Mozart stylists of his day and yet his recordings are sometimes overlooked. This Clemenza, made as a followup to his quartet of Scottish recordings on the late Telarc label, barely made a ripple at its release eleven years ago. However, it is worth going back for. Mackerras' choice for Vitellia is Hiillevi Martinpelto, a singer who featured heavily in the above-mentioned Gardiner recordings. She is surrounded by a good contemporary cast of lesser known singers, with Rainer Trost (who?) as Titus and Magdalene Kožená at an early peak.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra cond. René Jacobs (harmonia mundi, 2005)
Recordings of La Clemenza di Tito are either starting points for a conductor's essay of the major Mozart operas or afterthoughts. In 2005 there were two in one year. This René Jacobs recording on period instruments captures the crystalline sound of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, that historically informed group from the college town near the Black Forest that stunned the Mostly Mozart Festival earlier this year. Jacobs takes a warts-and-all approach to the score, capturing the raw energy of Mozart's invention and the excitement of this underappreciated opera on a good night at the theater.

OK. You made it through another one. Here as always is a reward:

Elina Garança sings "Parto parto o tu ben mio" from La clemenza di Tito.

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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.