In the fitful final year of Mozart’s life, the comparatively young (he was 35) composer interrupted work on what was to be his final opera, “The Magic Flute,” to accept an important commission. “La Clemenza di Tito” was to be premiered at the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bavaria. The fee was a handsome one, twice the usual rate. The opera is based loosely — very loosely — on events in the life of the Roman Emperor Titus, as described by the Roman writer Suetonius. Caterino Mazzola’s libretto was adapted from a creaky, 50-year-old setting by Metastasio that had already been set by 40 other composers! Nothing unusual about that for that time. What is unique about “Tito” is that it is Mozart’s only venture into opera seria. This form, often mistranslated and misunderstood as “serious opera,” actually means “series opera.” The concept is that each aria or set piece represents a specific affect, or emotion, and these proceed in sequence, or serie, to affect a dramatic experience. The form had already passed from fashion when Mozart took it on, yet his approach is filled with elegance, nobility and the usual vocal elaborations that make Mozart the greatest of composers for the voice.
Enough history! The Met production, designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, has received universally glowing notices, especially for the mezzo Elina Garanca as Sesto: “She produces luminous sounds that seem to linger suspended in the air like shining pearls.” Of particular note in “Tito” is Sesto’s first act aria “Parto, parto,” which features a clarinet accompaniment. The combination of voice and instrument here is highly prized for its luminescence. Also getting raves has been the tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role: “His solid tenor full of authority and, at the end, compassion.”
All in all, this rather unusual though classical opera is a rare treat. Those who love Mozart and great singing will want to be there. As for the libretto, well, just don’t worry about it.
John Deaderick is a local theatre instructor, director, actor, and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at Amazon.com.