Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito (Metropolitan Opera, 12/7/12)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” last night was a December 7, 2012 telecast of the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s (more or less) final opera, La Clemenza di Tito — I wrote “more or less” because Mozart was working on it and The Magic Flute simultaneously and it’s possible much of Tito was older music recycled for the project rather than newly composed arias. La Clemenza di Tito was an example of the genre known as opera seria — which meant not only “serious” plots (usually derived from classical mythology or ancient history) but also a rather stiff, inflexible mode of presentation in which brief recitatives were used to tell the story and set the scene for arias that generally focused on one and only one emotion and were also frequently quite repetitive. In the March-April 2013 issue of Fanfare, Lynn René Bayley reviewed a new CD of Handel’s opera seria Giulio Cesare and criticized it for being dramatically stiff and dull, but also conceded that dramatic stiffness and dullness are pretty much built into the form: “What on earth can Caesar do, for instance, when he stands there singing, ‘If you do not take pity on me O righteous heavens, I will die; Give peace to my torment or my soul will expire,’ over and over and over and over again for nearly nine minutes?” There’s another problem reviving opere serie today and that’s the fact that virtually all their male leads were written for castrati: La Clemenza di Tito was a dramatic feature for soprano castrato Domenico Bedini, who sang the male lead of Sesto, a Roman general elevated to court status by emperor Titus — though Titus himself is a tenor (thank goodness!) and the third male principal, Annio, was intended by Mozart to be sung by a mezzo in drag. The plot of La Clemenza di Tito was already over half a century old when Mozart got hold of it, and the libretto was originally written by the early 18th century Italian poet Pietro Metastasio — whose surviving letters contain bitter comments on how the composers of his time chewed up his carefully crafted libretti. (He’d feel right at home in a Writers’ Guild of America meeting listening to them bitch about what directors have done to their scripts.)

Metastasio’s libretto had already been set by nearly 40 composers, some during his lifetime and some after his death (when he wasn’t around to protest the frequent rewrites it was put through and the “suitcase” arias that got inserted into it by star singers); Mozart got assigned to the project by impresario Domenico Guardasoni, who lived in Prague (where Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a box-office disappointment in Vienna, had been such a smash hit the Prague Opera had commissioned Mozart to write Don Giovanni) and wanted a piece that would be part of the gala celebrating the coronation of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. This explains why the story chosen was a tale of a magnanimous Emperor who forgives everybody, including the terrorists who try to kill him and burn the Roman Capitol. The real Emperor Titus succeeded to the throne in 79 C.E. following the death of his father Vespasian (one of the few times in the history of the Roman Empire that a son actually succeeded his dad on the throne without turmoil and bloodshed!) and ruled only two years before catching a fever and dying, but during that time he acquired such a reputation for goodness that one historian called him “the original Boy Scout” and cited a letter supposedly written by Titus himself to the effect that any day on which he could not do a good deed was wasted. From this Metastasio and his successors — including the librettist Mozart actually worked with, Caterino Mazzolà — concocted a story in which Titus has gained the throne not through inheritance, but through deposing his predecessor Vitellius. Vitellius’s daughter Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli) has three reasons to hate Titus: first, he dethroned her father; then, he attempted to seduce her; and after he’d succeeded in winning her love he abandoned her for a foreign-born commoner named Berenice (she was actually Jewish, but that’s not mentioned in the libretto and she never appears as an on-stage character). Sesto (Elina Garança) has the hots for Vitellia, but she says she’ll have a relationship with him only if he assassinates Titus (Giuseppe Filianoti) and burns down the Roman Capitol, which Vitellia wants to happen as her revenge against Titus.

Meanwhile, Sesto’s sister Servilia (Lucy Crowe) is in love with a young man named Annio (Kate Lindsey), only Annio needs Titus’ permission to marry her and so he asks Sesto to lobby the Emperor on his behalf. Only Titus has decided for political reasons that he has to dump Berenice and marry a Roman woman — and he’s picked Servilia for this honor. She’s at once grateful for the honor and horrified at having to marry a man she doesn’t love but can’t refuse because he’s the freaking Emperor — a situation Verdi recycled in both Ernani and Don Carlos — only Titus, being terminally nice, decides not to marry Servilia after all once she explains that Annio is the only man she’ll ever love. So Titus decides to marry Vitellia after all, which means she no longer has a reason to want him dead — only she isn’t able to stop Sesto in time to keep him from setting fire to the Capitol and stabbing a man Sesto thinks is Titus but who is in reality a soldier named Lentulus (another character we hear talked about but don’t actually see). Sesto is apprehended by Publio (bass Oren Gradus — opere serie were generally not big on low-voiced males, though in 1966 when Julius Rudel revived Giulio Cesare for the New York City Opera he cast Julius Caesar, originally written for a castrato, with bass Norman Treigle, simply lowering the music a full octave so he didn’t have to change the keys; and that production, with Beverly Sills in her star-making role as Cleopatra, was a smash hit) and in act II he’s put on trial before the Roman Senate. Not surprisingly, the Senate finds him guilty and prepares an order of execution which Titus only needs to sign — only he’s torn between loyalty to his old friend and loyalty to the law. He signs the document but then thinks better of it and tears it up. At a final scene, supposedly taking place before the audience at the Roman games (incidentally the real Titus supervised the final stages of the construction of the Colosseum), Vitellia appears and, impressed by Sesto’s loyalty to her — he’s confessed his own role in the terror plot but has not implicated her — she tells all. Titus forgives both Sesto and Vitellia and allows them to marry each other, while Annio and Servilia pair up with each other and the final scene shows the two happy couples basking in the emperor’s clemency while he’s left alone.

La Clemenza di Tito has got some bad press over the years, with many critics wondering why Mozart, who’d just finished groundbreaking works like Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte and The Magic Flute that ran roughshod over the operatic conventions of the day, should have composed his last stage work in an already on-its-last-legs genre like opera seria. One American Record Guide reviewer wrote about a new recording of Tito in the late 1970’s and said it tended to throw people who expect a great composer’s final opera to be something on the level of Parsifal or Falstaff (“or Turandot!” declared my mother and my brother, both intense Puccini-philes, when I mentioned this article to them then). The opening scenes are pretty bland in the best seria manner; after a nice overture we meet Vitellia and Sesto plotting a terrorist attack on Rome in ridiculously bouncy recitative (written not by Mozart but by his student and pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr — it was quite common for opera composers facing a quick deadline to entrust students or assistants to do the grunt work of writing the recitatives[1]) and we can’t help wonder what Verdi might have done with this situation, and even the situation of Annio having to face Titus’ engagement to his girlfriend Servilia and having to regard her as his sovereign rather than his fiancée (done to a turn by Verdi in Don Carlos) doesn’t evoke much but a nice display aria — which was, after all, the whole point of opera seria just as it was of 1920’s musicals: to show off a star performer rather than to tell a coherent story. Towards the end of the first act, though, with Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto” — the best-known piece in the work, and rightfully so — Tito suddenly acquires dramatic power and force. The one big change Mozart ordered Mazzolà to make in the text was to write him more ensemble scenes, in which he could have the characters actually interact with each other instead of just standing on stage front and center delivering their arias.

Though there’s not much suspense in how it’s going to turn out — after all, the piece’s very title is a “spoiler”! —La Clemenza di Tito is a quite workmanlike opera and often a surprisingly moving one given the limitations of the form. The work does suffer from the gynocentric casting — the Met wisely avoided casting Sesto as a countertenor, the other modern-day “solution” to the castrato problem — we have two women playing women, two women playing men, and two men playing men, and the opera is already 15 minutes old before we hear any male voice, and as a result the ensembles tend to sound pretty much alike and if we were just listening to the opera on CD instead of watching it on video, it wouldn’t be easy to tell the voices apart. I found it marvelously ironic that after their appearance three years earlier in the Met Carmen — in which Elina Garança was Carmen and Barbara Frittoli was Micaëla, her nice-girl rival for Don José’s affections — this time they were playing, not rivals in love, but lovers themselves, with Frittoli essentially being Carmen to Garança’s Don José! The production was originally designed for the Met by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose opera stagings frequently took liberties with the original settings and plots — my brother used to call him “Jean-Pierre Banalle” but compared to the ridiculous productions that clutter up opera stages today (like the Met’s current Traviata and Parsifal) Ponnelle looks decidedly respectful by comparison, and aside from his very 1970’s addiction to scrims (screens of translucent cloth dropped between the stage and the audience) the production is quite a good one that never lets us forget that this opera is, and should be staged as, an 18th century idea of what Imperial Rome was like and not brought into a more modern understanding of how the Roman court actually functioned. (One amusing aspect of the production was that some of the projections on the scrim showed the classic Roman buildings in ruins — as had the drawings of Piranesi Charles and I had just seen at the San Diego Museum of Art — even though they weren’t yet in a ruined state when the events of this opera take place!) The Met brought an “historically informed” conductor, Harry Bicket, in for this production, and he used a reduced orchestra and got some beautifully detailed playing (the slithery clarinet obbligati to Sesto’s big arias came through especially well; Mozart originally wrote them for his close friend, clarinetist Anton Stadler), and the singers were generally quite good even though, as noted above, the four women tended to sound quite similar and listening to the work “blind” you’d have a hard time telling them apart unless you really know La Clemenza di Tito quite well. I especially liked Giuseppe Filianoti as Titus — though he doesn’t have quite the melting sweetness singers like Wunderlich or Tauber brought to music like this, he phrased eloquently and realized that singing Mozart requires a different approach and set of vocal skills from singing Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi — and Garança and Frittoli, the two “stars” of the production, both delivered the vocal goods even though I found Frittoli’s upper register a bit wobbly.

One problem is that the women playing men don’t look or sound all that convincingly “male” — the late Maureen Forrester recorded Sesto and somehow managed to thin her vibrato and achieve the “white” sound of a real castrato or countertenor (I’m assuming the records of Alessandro Moreschi, the one castrato who actually recorded — albeit in 1903-04 — are representative of the timbre of a castrato voice even though his singing is either technically shaky or simply odd) while still retaining the power and volume of a trained female singer in her natural register — and it’s odd to think that in 1791 no one thought it particularly odd that you’d have to listen carefully to the text to determine which characters were men and which were women. The production did suffer from a ridiculous outfit for Vitellia that made her look more like the wicked queen in Disney’s Snow White than anything one would believe for her character, but otherwise Ponnelle’s designs were quite workable and director Peter McClintock did a good job with the thankless task of working from the designs of a dead guy and still making the production live in real time. La Clemenza di Tito isn’t a masterpiece on the order of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte or The Magic Flute — the Mozart operas anyone who likes opera at all has actually heard of — but it’s a fascinating curio that reveals late Mozart at his best even though it works as drama only within the limits of opera seria as a genre and one keeps wondering what Mozart could have done with the story if he hadn’t been hamstrung by the seria conventions — as he did with Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, who’s motivated by the same conflict of emotions as Vitellia (torn between her attraction to her seducer and her desire for revenge against him for abandoning her) but is a more convincing character. La Clemenza di Tito is one old opera I frankly wouldn’t mind seeing done in modern dress — in the middle of yet another controversy over Guantánamo Bay the whole issue of whether terror suspects should be treated severely or mercifully is as current as today’s headlines! — but the Met’s approach of treating it quite frankly as an 18th century vision of ancient Rome (and acknowledging that its ultra-flattering portrayal of Titus was an obvious ego-suck to the real-life emperor who was being honored at its premiere!) also works, and works a lot better than the Regietheatre nonsense the Met inflicted on Traviata and Parsifal.

[1] — Süssmayr is best known as the composer who finished Mozart’s Requiem after Mozart’s death, and he and Mozart were close enough that Mozart named one of his sons, Franz Xaver Mozart, after him.