Photo from Met achives
This music, explained conductor Harry Bicket just moments before he returned to the pit for the second act of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, "is so completely personal."
Bicket explained that Mozart had managed in spite of the "biographical agony of his last year," to engage the antiquated art form of the opera seria and to write music that "distilled all his lifetime experience" into music that is "so personal and touching."
Yet, this opera has had an uneven reception and remains much less frequently performed than Mozart's other late operas. The reasons for this are often attributed to challenges of the opera seria tradition for modern audiences, but this work adapted the seria formula by using ensembles and much more varied aria structures--the challenges extend beyond generalism into the particular. This opera requires listeners to hear beneath its surface.
On the surface the plot is simpler than is typical in Mozart. Conflicted between love for a woman and love for a friend, Sesto agrees to lead a revolt that will burn Rome as a means of creating distraction while he assassinates the emperor Tito. It is the kind of plot in which one might expect Kiefer Sutherland to appear at any moment as this opera becomes the new final season for "24."
Yet, there is more to this opera than is revealed in any synopsis of its plot. The music is often strangely serene, and yet it is achingly beautiful because there is a dimension of sadness scored into the deeper structure of the music.
While the opera begins and ends in C major, the key of Eb disrupts the music several times. This Eb first appears in the royal march and chorus that introduces Tito in the first act. [The architecture of this passage was altered by significant cuts to this section during this performance]. Eb amplifies a minor modality of C, and the fact that the first act ends in Eb after the dramatic burning of the city and apparent killing of Tito causes us to begin a process of reorientation in our structural hearing.
The second act is a mirror of the first that ends in C major, but it also further develops and refines flat keys like Bb and Eb. There are two important moments in A major, one in each act, that finalize the evidence that the background tonality of this opera is related to the unfolding of a C dorian modality that never appears on the surface of the music, though C minor is articulated strongly in Sesto's accompanied recitative at the end of the first act.
This tonal structure has the meditative stillness of a portrait, but it also gives us access to the unconscious world that we so often feel enacted in the music on the surface of this music.
Things on the surface of this opera are also seldom what they appear to be. The plot appears to be the simple granting of mercy by a ruler. But Slavoj Žižek noticed that the plot displayed a "ridiculous proliferation of mercy" in which "power no longer functions in a normal way, so that it has to be sustained by mercy all the time." Žižek observed that "instead of relying on the support of faithful subjects, [Tito] ends up surrounded by sick and tormented people condemned to eternal guilt."
This classical 1984 production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle at the Met had deep and rich surfaces, but these surfaces were often crumbling or broken, and while they remained beautiful they also revealed the presence of decay. The live-in-HD cameras were more active than usual, perhaps trying to counter the stillness inherent in the musical portraiture.
The singing was impressive, particularly Kate Lindsey who made the often unnoticed Annio into a character who mattered. Elīna Garanča amplified the rich inner conflicts within the character of Sesto. Barbara Frittoli was able to reveal dark humor within the character of Vitellia. Several times the Met audience, and the audience in the theater in which I watched, chuckled quietly at this character normally portrayed as a force of pure and simple evil.
La Clemenza di Tito is the mysterious stranger among the late Mozart operas. I am thankful that the Met transmitted it and am optimistic that it was an opportunity for a much wider audience to glimpse the forces under the hood that drive this opera, and to make a new personal connection to this opera that is "so completely personal."