1791 is an important year in Mozart’s life. It’s the year where he composes Die Zauberflöte, the Requiem, the clarinet concerto, his last piano concerto (nr 27) and it is also the year of his death. The clarinet concerto was written for Anton Stadler, a clarinet virtuoso who also played the obbligato clarinet parts in La clemenza di Tito (there are two of them in this opera, one for Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto…” and one for Vitellia’s rondo “Non piu di fiori”).
Prague, 6 September 1791, just a few hours after the coronation of the emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia: La clemenza di Tito, opera composed by W. A. Mozart for the coronation festivities has its premiere at the Estates Theatre in Prague (the same theatre as Don Giovanni, 4 years earlier). The public gave it a cool reception, the emperor loved it (or the soprano, more likely), his royal wife belittles it as Una porcheria tedesca (“German crap” or “swinishness”). As does the court diarist (….: “At 5 o’clock to the theatre in the Old Town, to the opera which is given by the Estates [the government of Bohemia] […] The court did not arrive until after 7:30 and we were regaled with the most tedious spectacle, La clemenza di Tito). This was the start of a criticism hard to die.
Though it had some decent success in the following years, la Clemenza was always regarded as an “old fashioned”, “cold” opera, a piece of “stale routine”. This was probably due to Metastasio’s libretto, a didactic plot in which betrayal, treachery, and political machination end with the example of the ruler who forgives everybody and rules with wisdom and humanity. Partly maybe to the two already mentioned “Non piu di fiori” and “Parto, parto“, which were regarded as mere concert pieces and therefore emotionally detached from the singers’ characters. Undoubtedly it is different to the opera’s composed by Mozart in the previous years. A nostalgic look back to the opera seria? Maybe, but the mastery with which Mozart crafts the single pieces has an astonishing dramatic approach and, as Mozart’s first biographer Niemetschek already saw…”a sense of characterization and delicate taste”. (Just listen to the Terzetto “Vengo…aspettate….”, the following quintet which closes the first act, and Sesto and Vitellia’s aria’s). This was in part also thanks to Caterino Mazzolà, who took the libretto written by Metastasio, shortened it from three to two acts, added ensembles instead of only aria’s and worked with Mozart to add a theatrical grip and emotional complexity more adequate to the time. In our time, one recognizes and appreciates Mozart’s style in almost all pieces. How not appreciate the short (less than a minute) duettino between Sesto and Annio, the delicate and moving S’altro che lacrime, and the monstruous “Non piu di fiori“, who demands a quick coloratura, lyrical singing and an enourmous range (low G to high D). In this example Della Jones does an excellent job.
Ensemble-wise the quintet who closes Act I is a masterpiece. It depicts a fire on the Capitoline Hill. The characters enter one by one and take up the same melodial phrase as they arrive, in different keys, both major and minor. Between these fall the cries of the chorus, who is off stage. The orchestral mass breaks in, leads to various key changes to a brilliantly conceived Andante, almost a funeral march (after all Tito is believed to be stabbed to death), which closes act I in piano.
The singers are pretty good altogether. Although Alexandrina Pendatchanska (or Alex Penda as she likes to be called today) has a tight vibrato and a somewhat metallic edge which makes her pronunciation difficult to understand, she acts very well and pulls off the role quite well, using often her chest voice, which I don’t dislike. Tito is Charles Workman who has an excellent pronunciation. His voice slightly strained in the very high notes is powerful and he moves and acts with ease. Although his coloratura is not flawless, his sings and acts convincingly. Simona Saturova is perfect. A wonderfully sweet and impeccable Servilia, her whole register is equally smooth, her voice round and fluid, and Mozart and his contempararies fit her voice excellently. Alex esposito sings in the small role of Publio which seems under his capacities. I wish Peter de Caluwe would use the fee and pay Esposito for some Rossini serio. Sesto and his friend Annio are Michele Losier who has a nice timbre and Frances Bourne who complete the sextet. They both sing acceptably
The setting by Ivo van Hove is one room (bedroom and bureau) with colours kept in dark brown, mostly. The whole action is also filmed. Vitellia and Sesto mainly from above, the others side wise. However, the filming adds little to the concept. Moving as it is in Servilia’s joy and Tito’s understanding looks, it is pointless in the rest of the opera. Furthermore van Hove seems to have difficulties in knowing what to do with the singers on stage. There is very little movement and the little there is is oddly conventional.
And yet this would all be acceptable, if the musical direction would be satisfactory. But Ludovic Morlot is like I remember him in Cosi fan tutte: he beats time like a Chinese lucky cat: this results in the music being tedious, slow and without pulsating vigor.
Music direction-Ludovic Morlot, Director-Ivo van Hove, Scenography-Jan Versweyveld, Costumes-An D’Huys, Video-Tal Yarden, Dramaturgy-Janine Brogt and Reinder Pols, Tito Vespasiano-Charles Workman, Vitellia-Alex Penda, Servilia-Simona Saturova, Sesto-Michele Losier, Annio-Frances Bourne, Publio-Alex Esposito, Orchestra and Chorus of De Munt/La Monnaie, 11 october 2013