La Clemenza di Tito

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio
New York City Opera
6 April 2000

Marie Plette
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Laura Tucker
Jake Gardner
Kurt Streit
Tracy Dahl

The last (and first) time I attended a performance of this opera was at the Metropolitan Opera, several years ago, with Tatyana Troyanos as an excellent Sesto. I cannot remember, for the life of me, who her colleagues were, but I do remember that they were all quite good. However good they might have been, the NYCO cast has them roundly beat! It has been years since I've heard such gorgeous and heartfelt singing in an opera house: brilliant coloratura with exciting trills from the men as well as the women, emotions intensely expressed by all, and orchestral playing, conducted by Harry Bickett, that always supported the singers-never drowning them out. Each of the six performers distinguished themselves, however long or short their roles.

Despite the excellence of all, I feel that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson should be singled out for her complete mastery of all the vocal requirements --after all, she is one of the world's foremost Handelians. But both her body language and her interpretation lent as much credibility to Sesto's plight as any performer could provide, despite this highly implausible dramatic situation. From my first exposure to this opera, I have found it unbelievable that a grown, intelligent, mature and sensitive man would even consider submitting himself to the self-serving whims of a woman who is subject to tantrums whenever she does not get what she wants. Since history tells us that Sesto never really existed, one would hope that a dramatist of any integrity (especially Metastasio who created him) would provide him with real human emotions rather than the emotions of a teenager ruled by his raging hormones.

No matter how she is directed, Vitellia is, indeed, no more than a cypher:  she is guilty neither of the profound evil of an Ortrud (or even an Iago, since gender jumping seems to be a convention in this opera) nor the coquetry and, perhaps, snobbery of an Adina. Her emotions and motivations appeared to be created by a short-sighted puppet master to fit only the dramatic situation of the moment. Consequently, no matter how well Marie Plette performed the role --no matter how well she expressed the emotions of the moment-- she had no consistent characterization to work with if she wished to present a believable human being. Furthermore, historically, Vitellia was the daughter of Vitellius, a rebellious general in the army of Vespasian, father of Titus. Her father never became emperor, and her claim to the throne is specious, at best. Since Suetonius, biographer of Rome's early emperors, tells us that Vespasian provided his enemy's daughter with a dowry and an advantageous marriage, is she a widow in Mozart's opera? What happened to her husband? Does she have any children (a possible impetus for her desire to marry Titus)?

Then there is the title character who, prior to assuming the position of emperor, was infamous for his "loose living and merciless treatment of suspected conspirators," at least during his father's reign. Titus himself ruled only two years before being carried off by one of the worst outbreaks of the plague recorded in Roman history. This is the same Titus as Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, the same one who sent away the Jewish princess, Bérénice in the Corneille play named after her. Her departure is discussed at the beginning of the opera and pantomimed in the Met production. His constant protests of mercy tend to weaken this authority figure, especially in light of his history and despite his attempts to do the politically correct thing by sending away the foreign princess and trying to provide Rome with a Roman empress.

The director, Steven Wadsworth, also responsible for the updated Xerxes of a few seasons ago, moved this story into Mozart's 18th century, perhaps to underline the political aspect of the story by placing it in a revolutionary world undergoing its own political changes. The set consists of a long brick wall, a window that swings open and shut, some steps, some ramps, and a passageway through which Sesto has to crawl to get to the senate chamber. It could be the courtyard of Tito's palace or of another government building. It is not a very interesting set.

All in all, the opera came across as a boring amalgam of beautiful and well-composed -- if ultimately-forgettable -- arias and recitatives that were more like a series of concert arias with no continuous or truly profound emotional development. But if you love Mozart and have the opportunity to hear such fine, sensitive, and talented singers as were assembled for this production, it is certainly worth your time and effort.

Howard in Brooklyn

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Howard Levin

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