Major Operas | La clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Classical Era
Premiered in Prague on 6 September 1791, Mozart’s last opera is based on an old Metastasio libretto, updated (with added ensembles and choruses) for contemporary taste. Popular in the early nineteenth century, it then went into eclipse. Nowadays, though, La clemenza di Tito is valued on its own terms rather than as a pale successor to the much more expansive Idomeneo.
While the music for the enlightened Emperor Tito has a certain chilly formality, that for the vacillating Sesto and, especially, the manipulative, ultimately remorseful Vitellia is richly expressive. Two other highlights, in a score characterized by a neo-classical purity, economy and restraint, are the exquisite farewell duet for Annio and Servilia ‘Ah perdona’ (‘Ah, forgive’) and the moving finale to the first act. This does the opposite of what we expect from an operatic finale, beginning in turmoil and ending with an elegiac andante.
Vitellia, daughter of the deposed Roman emperor Vitellius, wants to become empress. She persuades Sesto, who loves her, to assassinate the emperor, Tito, if he marries Berenice, whom he loves. News comes that Tito is sending Berenice away because he must marry a true Roman, and her hopes are revived. Sesto’s friend Annio asks for his sister Servilia’s hand. Sesto agrees and they swear eternal friendship.
Tito enters and the people pay homage. He declares his determination to rule by kindness and to reward virtue. He then tells Annio that he has decided to marry Servilia; Annio, crestfallen, goes to tell her and bid farewell to her and to his hopes. However, Servilia does not accept the situation and courageously goes to tell Tito of her and Annio’s love; he commends her candour and releases her. Vitellia, learning that Tito has selected Servilia, is enraged. She despatches Sesto to set the assassination in train. Reluctantly, but blindly obedient to her wishes, he agrees. Then Annio arrives with Publio, head of the Praetorian Guard: they tell Vitellia that she is the chosen empress. She is shocked and bewildered but cannot now call off the plot. The Capitol is on fire: Sesto and his friends have set the plot in motion. He returns, believing Tito dead, and wracked by guilt. All gather to mourn the emperor’s death; Sesto makes to confess his role but Vitellia silences him.
Annio tells Sesto that Tito has survived. Sesto admits he initiated the plot but will not explain why; Annio urges him to confess to Tito. It is too late however: Publio comes to arrest him. Sesto bids Vitellia farewell. The people assemble to give thanks for Tito’s survival. Tito learns that Sesto is implicated and has been arrested and condemned to death by the Senate. Annio pleads for him. Tito summons him: surely there must be some rational explanation. Sesto cannot face his former friend (and cannot betray Vitellia); before his dismissal, he begs Tito to...
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