The Metropolitan Opera's production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito‹the only one ever seen here‹is more than 20 years old. When it premiered, it was evidence that the composer's last opera had finally received its due after decades of critical abuse. Wagner had called it "stiff and dry," the critic Edward J. Dent a "museum piece." In the years since its Met premiere, Clemenza's hold on the repertoire has only strengthened. We now find it strange that critics could have been so wrong about the opera, both in evaluating it as an artwork and in misunderstanding the opera seria tradition.
Still, a barrier seems to prevent many from giving Clemenza the unqualified endorsement accorded Le Nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni, and it goes to the heart of the work: the character of the Roman emperor Tito (Titus Vespasian) and his apparently limitless capacity to act virtuously. The opera's other two principal characters pose no comparable problems. Vitellia, an emperor's daughter, is the kind of domineering woman that opera thrives on, with a lust for power that puts her in a league with Lady Macbeth. And the weak-willed Sesto, who is so captivated by Vitellia he would do almost anything for her, could have served as a model for the William Hurt character in the movie Body Heat.
Tito and his pristine virtue are more difficult to accept. Even so great an admirer of Clemenza as Andrew Porter, in his review of the Met production, called him "a steady font of clemency," and noted that "the drama depends on the prima donna, Vitellia, . . . and the primo uomo, Sextus." It matters little that Tito's virtue has a historical basis. The 1st-century Suetonius called Titus Vespasian "the darling and delight of mankind." As Sesto reminds us in the first scene, he is remembered for declaring that a day is lost if he has not made someone happy. Scattered throughout the opera are examples of such deeds, which often involve the suppression of personal desire for the good of Rome. Even with his goodwill amply established, the opera's culminating act of clemency for Sesto and Vitellia after they have plotted against his life can seem a stretch.
The circumstances under which the opera arose also contribute to an impression of artificiality. First performed in Prague on September 6, 1791, it was written for the coronation of the Emperor Leopold II, a fact that made a flattering portrayal of a monarch obligatory. The choice of Pietro Metastasio's libretto La Clemenza di Tito, first set to music by Antonio Caldara in 1734, reinforced the view of later commentators that Mozart was writing something old-fashioned. Yet settings of the great librettist's texts, modified to reflect changes in operatic tastes, remained frequent into the 19th century. Mozart proclaimed that the Dresden court poet Caterino Mazzolà, who refashioned Metastasio's original for him, had made it "a true opera." Indeed, when Mozart's music is factored in, even the treatment of Tito the benevolent ruler can be seen as one of Clemenza's strengths.
Metastasio, perhaps to a fault, believed in the perfectibility of the enlightened monarch and in the capacity of his dramas to further moral improvement. "The first obligation of a poet (as a good poet)," he wrote, "is solely and absolutely to delight; the next obligation of a poet (as a good citizen) is to make use of his talents for the benefit of the society of which he is a part, inducing, by way of pleasure, the love of virtue, so necessary for general happiness." His practice of inducing "the love of virtue" has been traced by Don Neville to the philosophy of Descartes, for whom human emotions, or passions as he called them, are the principal forces in shaping human desires. As such, the passions need to be regulated by morality, i.e., Metastasio's "love of virtue," so that the desires to which they give rise do not lead to evil action.
Of Clemenza's three leading characters, only Tito has mastered Cartesian control of the passions. Vitellia's unbridled passion for power precipitates her nefarious plot against Tito's life. Unlike Vitellia, Sesto recognizes that his own passion (his lust for her) points him toward evil, but he lacks the willpower‹or a sufficient love of virtue‹to restrain himself. By contrast, Tito is virtuous at every turn. He gives up the Judean princess Berenice, whom he loves, because he believes Rome would prefer "one of her own daughters" as empress. He rejects a plan to build a monument honoring him in favor of channeling aid to victims of the Mt. Vesuvius disaster. He denounces a plan to punish persons who besmirched former emperors as a means for ensnaring the innocent.
The sum total of so much goodwill is a ruler who exists in an idealized form. Putting his subjects ahead of personal interests comes easy for Tito. But he faces a real test in Act II when he must decide the fate of his friend Sesto, found guilty for conspiring against his life. In two famous recitative scenes, which convey the loneliness that attend a man of power, he urges Sesto to confide in him as a friend, not as emperor, and when Sesto fails to do so, he comes close to losing his self-control for the only time in the opera. But later, left alone, he resolves on clemency. Voltaire said these scenes were "comparable to the finest that Greece ever produced, if not superior . . . worthy of Corneille when he is not ranting, and of Racine when he is not flimsy."
We have no verbal record of what Mozart thought of Metastasio's libretto, but Clemenza makes clear his response was positive. Clemency was a virtue much esteemed by the Enlightenment, and apparently by Mozart himself. As Ivan Nagel has observed, the last seven of Mozart's operas all end with a pardon, with the exception of Don Giovanni, where the hero refuses to ask for mercy. As regards Clemenza, Mazzolà's revised libretto actually gives Tito and his benevolence greater prominence than did Metastasio's original. Elimination of a subplot involving the false arrest of Annio, the fiancé of Sesto's sister, for Sesto's crime puts greater emphasis on the core issues. Much else was pruned as well, but the crucial scenes involving Tito and his magnanimity remained.
Mozart wouldn't have countenanced such changes unless he thought they contributed to the right balance and a stronger work. Look at Tito's arias. Mazzolà carried over only seven of Metastasio's 25 aria texts, yet they include all three of the arias Mozart gave Tito. He could have replaced them as well had their expressions of virtue been found wanting. But Mozart treats each in an arresting and memorable way. The first extols beneficence through melodic sweetness; the second, with its perky accompaniment and spirited vocal line, expresses Tito's joy when a subject addresses him candidly. The grandest is the final one, "Se al impero," in which Tito rejects the idea that an emperor needs a heart of severity. As with Tito's other arias, its ternary form (similar to the da capo aria) establishes an aptly formal tone, yet Mozart supports the idea that Tito expresses with warm, expansive music that shows strength of purpose while sweeping away any notion that severity is an option.
Further, Mozart and Mazzolà go beyond Metastasio in emphasizing the mutual esteem between Tito and the populace by significantly increasing the opera's choral content, both in individual choruses and in the finales of the two acts. Along with the traditional final coro, Metastasio included two choruses in praise of Tito. To them Mozart and Mazzolà added a third, "Ah, grazie si rendano," a serene expression of thanks sung after the revelation that Tito is alive. The three choruses have vivid but strikingly different musical settings. "Serbate, o Dei custody" in Act I is brisk and concise, while the great "Che del ciel, che degli Dei," with its dotted rhythms and trumpets and drums, introduces the final scene with a magnificent moment of Handelian grandeur.
The populace is also at the heart of Mozart and Mazzolà's principal structural innovation, the new "action finale" that closes Act I. With Tito presumed dead, the people lament his loss in an intense chorus of mourning, which, with its slow tempo and somber mood, makes for an overwhelmingly powerful act ending. By contrast, Tito is the dominant voice at the close of the opera, standing out from the others as he proclaims his devotion to Rome in a stirring ensemble that returns to the noble tone established by the chorus "Che del ciel, che degli Dei."
In suggesting that a truly harmonious relationship can exist between a head of state and the people he governs, Clemenza is a product of the 18th century's belief in the idea of progress in human affairs, a belief that accounts for the era's preference for happy endings over tragic ones. As the opera theorist Antonio Planelli observed, the "passage made by tragedy from a sad to a happy ending is clear proof of the progress made by humanity in placidness, urbanity and clemency, no matter what our misanthropes say." If later events have shown the hopefulness of the 18th century to be misplaced, Clemenza nevertheless deals with timeless principles of good government‹compassion, suppression of personal gain, steadfast devotion to the people, open channels of communication‹that seem all the more vital to human existence when cloaked in the nobility of Mozart's music.