La Clemenza di Tito: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)

Mozart: Clemenza di Tito

★★★★

(Salzburg Festival 2003; Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt)

For my first opera DVD of the new year, I decided it was time to make the acquaintance of Mozart’s Clemenza. This is one of the most popular and frequently filmed operas out there and it can be hard to know where to start; but fortunately there was help on hand in the form of Dehggial, who writes the knowledgeable and deliciously irreverent blog Opera, innit. Dehggial has a particular fondness for Clemenza and recommended this production from the 2003 Salzburg Festival. It’s a rather austere, dark take on the opera with some splendid singing and powerful acting. It was only after buying it that I realised it had been designed by none other than Martin Kušej, which meant there were some interesting links with motifs from the Royal Opera House’s recent Idomeneo.

Sesto, best friend of the emperor Tito, is in love with the ambitious Vitellia. Unfortunately for him, Vitellia is just stringing him along while she tries to catch the eye of the emperor, for whom she believes she’d be the perfect wife. So far her aspirations have been thwarted because Tito had planned to take the foreign princess Berenice as his bride. But, as the opera opens, we hear that Berenice has been put aside due to popular ill-feeling and Tito is back on the marriage market. Vitellia’s hopes flare up again; but they’re swiftly doused. Seeking to flatter his friend, Tito announces that he’ll marry Sesto’s sister Servilia instead. Vitellia erupts into a vindictive fury. She’s now been passed over twice and we all know what they say about women scorned.

And in fact she isn’t the only one vexed by Tito’s decision. Servilia is already in love with Sesto’s sweet, reliable friend Annio, who reciprocates her feelings; and so, plucking up her courage, she goes to beg Tito to excuse her from this ‘honour’. Tito agrees, relieved that someone is speaking frankly for once, but in the meantime Vitellia’s indignation has spiralled out of control. Using all her influence over Sesto, she seduces him into becoming her instrument of revenge, turning him against his closest friend with vague promises of greater favour afterwards. Little does Sesto know, as he wrestles with his conscience, that Tito’s factotum Publio is on his way to finally offer Vitellia the emperor’s hand in marriage. But Publio comes too late. By the time he arrives, Sesto has been dispatched on a crusade of vengeance which will leave Rome in flames and the emperor’s life itself at stake.

Mozart: Clemenza di Tito

Vitellia (Dorothea Röschmann), Sesto (Vesselina Kasarova) and Publio (Luca Pisaroni)

It’s all impressive stuff and fortunately this production has a cast who are more than capable of wringing out the drama and agony of the story. Dorothea Röschmann makes an impressive Vitellia, full of fire and power-lust and completely aware of her own irresistibility to Sesto (indeed, she spends much of the opera in her lingerie and, when she does come in demurely dressed, this seems to be a significant comment on her psychological state). Although it’d be easy to dismiss Vitellia as a mere troublemaker, Röschmann does give her a bit more depth: she’s a woman who relishes control, but has no way to secure the future she desires and has been pushed beyond her limits of endurance. Her physical presence was matched by a commanding, very versatile voice: she took on some thrilling passages of coloratura and made them look easy.

Elīna Garanča’s beautiful clear voice seemed a very good fit for Annio, who came across here as earnest, decent and very young; but her restrained style of acting was ever so slightly overshadowed by the intense emoting going on all around her. Of the four leads, the one I had some difficulty with was Michael Schade’s Tito. That wasn’t due to Schade’s performance, which was strong, nor to his voice, which tackled the music with a sensitivity and gentleness that truly fitted the part. But I simply didn’t warm to the reading of the character here.

In this production Tito’s clemency isn’t the sign of a wise and benevolent ruler, but of that a man who verges on simplicity. He’s out of touch with the world around him, misguidedly determined to win over his people through forgiveness. Trapped in his labyrinthine palace and betrayed by those he loves the most, this Tito is a man-child, protected to some extent by his minder Publio. It’s no wonder that more forceful factions have been plotting against him. For me, portraying Tito as a bit of a simpleton undermined some of the power and pathos of the story; but then again, I don’t know how other productions have approached his characterisation. Barbara Bonney as Servilia was very enjoyable to listen to but rather overshadowed by the vocal displays of Kasarova and Röschmann; and Luca Pisaroni made a subtle, watchful Publio, with a pleasingly resonant voice; but, like Servilia, Publio doesn’t get much of a chance to shine.

Mozart: Clemenza di Tito

The paranoid Tito (Michael Schade) even loses faith in Publio (Luca Pisaroni)

The highlight for me was Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto. She has a fantastically rich and mellifluous voice, with fluidly resonant lower notes and strong high notes; but she also turned in a psychologically shrewd performance. I obviously don’t have any other interpretations to compare hers to, but I was very impressed by the depth that she gave to the character. She can convey volumes with the slightest change in facial expression. This Sesto knows that he’s being used. He’s a noble man undone by desire: you can practically see him giving way as Vitellia taunts him with Deh se piacer mi vuoi, and you can also see that he loathes himself for doing so.

The powerhouse aria was Parto, ma tu, ben mio, which is an aria full of complicated emotions: it’s the moment when Sesto realises that he’s going to betray his friend – it’s a realisation, not a decision, because he just can’t help himself – and he’s doing all this without being at all certain that Vitellia will actually be his afterwards. Kasarova started out with ‘Parto, parto‘ as a gentle, exquisitely modulated phrase of complete wretchedness, followed by the whole gamut of betrayal and despair, before the middle section kicks in, the tempo picks up and Sesto visibly straightens up as his resolution firms.

Not only was the acting very strong, but there were some blindingly good runs of coloratura at the end. (Speaking of the acting, I also loved the amount of emotion that Kasarova managed to pack into the two words ‘Ingrata, addio‘ which Sesto throws at Vitellia after he’s been arrested by Publio.) My one small gripe is that the costumes didn’t do much to disguise Kasarova’s and Garanča’s all too feminine figures; but that leads into a whole other discussion about en travesti roles in Baroque opera, which has been touched on elsewhere and is too complex for this post.

Mozart: Clemenza di Tito

Publio (Luca Pisaroni), Sesto (Vesselina Kasarova) and Tito (Michael Schade)

I’m not sure how well I get on with Kušej as a designer. I can usually appreciate what he’s trying to do and I find that many of his ideas are daring and creative, but there are some which don’t quite work for me. However, I did like the fact that Clemenza, like Idomeneo, ends up being a meditation on power and offers a similarly bleak view of life at the top. That’s made clear from the outset. During the overture we see Tito standing alone in the sprawling maze of his palace… dialling a number on the telephone. The phone rings, but no one answers. Tito’s expression changes from one of cautious expectation to resignation, and then to suspicion. Not only is he isolated, but he feels he’s being watched: he spends the last part of the overture frantically rushing through his palace, wrenching open doors and starting at half-heard noises. This is not a man who’s happy in his position. Indeed, this Tito might well agree with Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’

When I first saw the set – a three-tier warren of rooms and staircases on such a scale that the singers looked swamped – I couldn’t imagine how the theatre audiences managed to follow it: this is one production which is surely far better seen on DVD, where you can fully appreciate all the subtleties of the acting. However, the set grew on me. Despite its austerity and rough industrial finish, its tiered openings reminded me of Classical architecture: the Colosseum or the labyrinthine ruins on the Palatine Hill. And these are handy parallels. Kušej’s Tito unfolds in a barren world stripped of intimacy: an arena; a place where you are never sure whether you’re alone or, crucially, whether someone else is watching. That sensation is helped by having the three tiers, each of which seems to have its own significance.

The lowest level, where Tito holds court, seems to be the world of the frank, the open and the straightforward. Tito spends most of his time on this level and this is where the main public scenes play out. The second level seemed to be the sphere of intrigue and mixed messages. Sesto and Vitellia’s scenes played out here and there was a lot of action on this level during the confusion of the fire sequence. The final, third level seemed to be reserved for surveillance or for deep introspection: Sesto retreated as far as he could into a corner of this level after he thought he’d attacked Tito. The idea of the different layers reminded me a bit of the dream-levels in Inception.

Mozart: Clemenza di Tito

Tito (Michael Schade) and Sesto (Vesselina Kasarova), watched by Publio (Luca Pisaroni)

But not everything works so well. I wasn’t keen on the crowds of tourists who came barging into Tito’s room just before the chorus of Serbate, o Dei, custodi. They mill around, gawp at the furnishings and take photos with Tito while he sits motionless on his bed. I couldn’t quite decide what to make of them. Was it a sign that Tito was being too open and trusting in his desire to win the love of the people? Or was it trying to make a further point about Tito’s isolation, in showing that one can be permanently surrounded by people, but still lonely in the midst of a crowd? If so, then I appreciated the sentiment but I didn’t like how it was carried out: it felt gimmicky. I thought the same point was made more successfully in Act 2 where Tito wrestles with his conscience beneath the eyes of a silent mob, pressed up against glass windows on the first-floor level like visitors at a zoo. As an emperor, even your deepest uncertainties and fears become public.

The other concept that baffled me was one which also cropped up in Idomeneo: the unnerving children who appear during the overture and then again in the finale. At the beginning they stand silently in the openings of the vast set while Tito sits isolated below after his paranoid race through the palace. There was something rather ominous about the children, but I didn’t quite understand what they were meant to represent. Eventually I cautiously decided that they might be symbols of Tito’s enduring innocence, which will soon be dashed by his best friend’s betrayal. That reading also worked in the disturbing finale, where the children reappear and are laid out on tables surrounded by grave black-clad adults. The tableaux looked almost like acts of cannibalism; but in my reading this represented innocence finally being overpowered and destroyed by age and cynicism. The problem is, I just feel that I’m being pushed too hard to read something profound into it. Still. Let’s look on the bright side. At least there wasn’t a shark.

This was definitely a very good introduction to Clemenza (so thank you, Dehggial!) and it’s a good place to begin with an opera that seems to have more than its fair share of wacky productions. However, I am looking forward to seeing how a more traditional interpretation would fare. As we all know, I do like a bit of 18th-century costume and so I have my eye on the 2012 production from the Met in New York, which has Garanča as Sesto, so it’ll be interesting to compare her treatment of the two roles.

Mozart: Clemenza di Tito

Publio (Luca Pisaroni) stands guard as Tito (Michael Schade) takes out his wrath on Sesto (Vesselina Kasarova)

17 thoughts on “La Clemenza di Tito: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)

  1. dehggial says:

    (cheers for shout-outs 🙂 and you're welcome!)

    Interesting take on Schade's Tito – he's usually seen as neurotic but there is something simple or crippled about him especially in Del piu sublime soglio (when he's tying himself up with his belt) and Ah, grazie se rendano (right after the fire, when he's trying to understand what has happened). That does tie in with your reading of the young boys = innocence turning into cynicism over the course of the opera. Tito is generally the hardest character to pull off and I myself am not thoroughly convinced by any I've seen so far. Schade's commitment goes a long way but I do feel his Tito often hard to guess/watch. However that makes Sesto's ambivalence more credible. I'm still a bit unsure about Tito and Sesto's relationship. It does oddly feel as if Tito is less experienced than Sesto, as if he had been reared away from everybody (more like the real Domitian was). Or maybe he's a bit autistic. I get the feeling from their interactions that Sesto has worked as his link with the world until recently.

    I like your reading of the levels so much I have nothing to add!

    The tourists = Tito is open and trusting and needy – eager for the love of everybody around him which makes him a bit ridiculous so I think the garishness fits.

    Whilst given my appreciation for the vocal performances I'd board the first time machine headed there, I too thought it didn't look like the most audience-friendly set. Imagine sitting in the first rows of the audience and trying to make out what singers where up to on the higher tiers. So it was clearly built for the DVD.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    I thought I should point out that in the first draft I referred to you as the TitoMeister 😉 I was sorry to drop that.

    Yep, for me the thing about this Tito was that I could see why he needed Sesto but I couldn't understand why Sesto felt so devoted to him. Publio came across as far more concerned for Tito's welfare than Sesto did – it seems that the internal conflict would be more wrenching if Tito was a more imposing, noble figure. But once again, that might just be me. And re. the set, oh yes. That'd be a production for the opera glasses and no mistake… I think the Ponnelle version – via the film or the Met production – will be the next Tito in line, so that I can satisfy my costume craving. But I've got some other Roman emperors to get my teeth into first. 😉

  3. dehggial says:

    looks like blogspot ate my comment…

    re: Sesto's devotion to Tito – this Tito is so needy, I have the feeling Sesto is merely feeling pity for him. Perhaps he's been reluctantly protective of him until Vitellia's constant arguments against his saintliness have started to erode his patience. I also think he rather enjoys the cosy position of Imperial best friend.

    I like TitoMeister 😉

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    No, both came through fine – it's just that I moderate all comments to stop the spam ones leaking through. I appreciate it's annoying to leave a comment and not see it come up straight away though. Sorry! As for the Sesto angle, yes, I like that reading. That would explain why Publio seems to be rather jealous of Sesto in this version: Publio actually *is* concerned for the emperor's welfare and he can see only too well that Sesto's affections are more lukewarm than Tito believes them to be.

  5. dehggial says:

    moderation: It's all good but what threw me was that blogspot usually alerts me that the post is moderated yet other times it does not (maybe it only does so with the first post in a thread, can't remember). It looks like it disappears in thin air and some of them have indeed.

  6. dehggial says:

    (speaking of indoctrination 😉 ) since you liked Kasarova, check out her DVD of Gluck's Orphee when you've some time. She's excellent and moving there as well. The production won't be your thing but she's hardly ever in traditional productions.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Since I believe you also like Sarah Connolly, you might like to check out the David McVicar production of La Clemenza di Tito from Aix-en-Provence in 2011. It was broadcast on Mezzo TV and there are some extracts on YouTube. Two feature Sarah Connolly as Sesto singing “Parto, parto” and “Deh per questa istante solo …” were uploaded by Arashi110. Carmen Gianastasio as Vitellia, Gregory Kunde as Tito, Anna Stépany was Annio. Though there was supposed to be a DVD it didn't happen; however it is possible to find a complete capture of the boadcast for sale..

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Ah, Dehggial, yes I do like Kasarova's voice very much, but you're spot on about the production. At the moment I think that might be just that bit too 'out there' for me to spend £18 on. Cuddly toys and man-sized polar bears in Hades? And Amor as a clown? Hmmm. It might have to wait for the day when I just can't take any more wigs and frock coats, and that might be some time away… However, I *do* need to be educated and so, in return for your good humour about my bombarding you with links to Fagioli arias, I will see if I can find some Kasarova clips on YouTube. 😉

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha. Me, like Sarah Connolly? Whatever gave you that idea? 😉 But yes, I had actually stumbled across her 'Deh per questo istante solo' already, though I hadn't seen the 'Parto, parto'. In the clip I watched I didn't really get much sense of Tito's affection for Sesto, although Connolly was putting everything she had into convincing you of Sesto's pain. What a shame the DVD didn't happen. I've got Connolly's Ariodante from this year's Aix festival lined up to watch soon – she really is a great performer. Thanks so much for the suggestion, though. Please do let me know if you find any other things I should watch – at the moment I'm very much finding my own way, which is resulting in a wonderfully eclectic but not particularly logical mish-mash of stuff! (And, as Dehggial can testify, I'm shamefully behind on mezzos since my focus so far has been in… other areas…)

  10. dehggial says:

    The production is less weird than it sounds (then again, that's coming from me…). Here's her take on J'ai perdu mon Eurydice from that production. Annoyingly, her smashing Amour, viens rendre a mon ame from the same production is currently unavailable on 'tube after having been there for ages.

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