172. La clemenza di Tito (Mozart)

  • Opera seria in 2 acts
  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Libretto: Caterino Mazzolà, after Metastasio
  • First performed: Estates Theatre, Prague, 6 September 1791

CHARACTERS: TITO (Titus), Emperor of Rome (tenor); VITELLIA, daughter of the deposed emperor Vitellius (soprano); SESTO, a young patrician, friend of Tito, in love with Vitellia (castrato); ANNIO, a young patrician, friend of Sesto, in love with Servilia (soprano); SERVILIA, sister of Sesto, in love with Annio (soprano); PUBLIO, Praetorian prefect (bass).

SETTING: Ancient Rome, 79.


This opera is not to be confused with La clemenza di Tito Andronico, words by Bill Shaksper, music by Mozart. Contains the famous aria ‘Come scoglio’ (lit. ‘For now I stand as one upon a rock’).

The clemency of Domitian was terrible. “He impudently prefaced all his most savage sentences with the same little speech about mercy,” Suetonius records; “indeed, this preamble soon became a recognized sign that something dreadful was on the way.” The enigmatic emperor was murdered at 44, justifying his remark that nobody believed an emperor’s life was in danger until he was assassinated.

Alma-Tadema, “The Triumph of Titus”.

Almost everybody loved his elder brother Titus, the darling of the people. He was, Suetonius notes, universally loved and adored. But, we may cynically wonder, was this benevolence innate or policy? Before he took the purple, Suetonius tells us, he was not only unpopular but venomously loathed; the people expected a second Nero: profligate, cruel, lustful, and corrupt. He made a great show of virtue: he sent away his Jewish mistress, Berenice; was generous with the people (“My friends, I have lost a day!” he exclaimed at dinner when he had done nobody any favours); and would not kill anybody. He died (of a plague? of poison?) after reigning for 2 years and 22 days, and was promptly deified – the posthumous Roman equivalent of an OBE. But would he have remained so good if he had continued to live? Even Caligula had a glorious start to his reign. And certainly the Jews have no reason to love the man who destroyed the temple at Jerusalem. All very fishy, as Domitian didn’t say when his brother died.

N.B.: Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Titus) is not to be confused with his father, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Tight-arse). This was the man who taxed everything – including urine. “Ee, lad, does that pong?” he said, waving a coin under his son’s nose. “And yet et cooms from piss. Tha’s nowt mucky about brass!” Even today the Italian and French slang for urinal is vespasiano and vespasienne. (You see, you learn something new every day!)

For later centuries, Titus was held up as a paragon of monarchy: benevolent, reasonable, clement, free from malice or personal desire. Certainly a model for Leopold II, his subjects hoped.

Mozart’s opera was commissioned for the monarch’s coronation as King of Bohemia in Prague. Mozart dashed it off in four weeks; the libretto was an old piece of Metastasio’s that several composers including Gluck had used since 1734.

The opera didn’t please the audience of sozzled aristocrats; the Empress dismissed it as “una porcheria tedesca”; one Count Zinzendorf called it “the most tedious spectacle”. Less snooty audiences liked it, though; it was popular in Germany and Austria, and was the first Mozart opera staged in London. It is performed today, but less so than Mozart’s other works. Critics tend to regard it as a conservative work that Mozart wrote only for dosh.

It is, in fact, one of Mozart’s two most successful operas, and in certain moods my favourite Mozart. Ancient Rome is far more interesting than mad gardeneresses, seraglios, ‘Albanians’ or birdcatchers. Tito’s libretto is refreshingly competent. The opera has an actual story; the drama doesn’t tread water, disappear halfway through, and it isn’t boring or trivial.

 Vitellia, daughter of the toppled emperor Vitellius (remembered only for his gluttony), persuades her boyfriend Sesto (a woman in drag) to assassinate Titus. He fails. Titus pardons his friends.

Quite a few numbers are conventional, but many are fine. The short time Mozart had to compose forced him to be succinct. The overture is a splendid allegro in C major. The first act contains the lovely duet (No. 7), a gentle tender moment as two characters part (they imagine) forever, tinged with melancholy and resignation. The sombre finale is punctuated by cries of dismay, and ends in a sombre quintet and chorus of great power that fade away. Act II has a majestic andante chorus (No. 15) rather in the manner of Gluck, and two excellent trios. Tito’s da capo ‘Se all’impero’ is one of Mozart’s best arias; Vitellia has a moving rondo (‘Non più di fiori’); and the opera ends with a sublime sextet finale.

The opera’s chief ‘defect’ is its appeal to the intellect, rather than to the audience’s feelings or taste for pretty songs. The opera is a debate about clementia. Witness the scene (I, x) where Titus wonders whether to execute or pardon Sesto. His friend is disloyal – then avenge his disregard and scorn for the emperor’s clemency. But can Titus harbor such feelings? – Then let him live. – But what about the laws? Sesto is guilty, let him die. – But then Titus does violence to his feelings. Is he even sure others will approve? Is he forsaking his usual benevolence? – His friend will live. Even though a traitor. Let the world accuse Titus of mercy rather than severity (rigour).

Seneca (De Clementia) argues the monarch should be led by logos (universal reason) rather than private passion. He defined clemency as humanity and forbearance, rather than pity or unmotivated generosity; it is a rational decision to be humane. Seneca identified it as a Stoic and Epicurean virtue, and called it the most human of all virtues, and the most fitting for men (I.3.2). The recipient of this advice, Nero, took little heed.

For Greek philosophers, Vahl argues, it was a mixture not just of mercy and forgiveness but of moderation, benevolence, leniency, and mildness: “the quality of self-control and self-restraint that a king shows to his loyal subjects. This in turn led to the security of the state and of the king, because he is mild and able to rule fairly.” It also, though, Vahl argues, implies the power and rightness of the victor pardoning a transgressor; it can only be bestowed upon those of lower status.

Surprisingly, Vahl notes that clementia did not figure much in the art of the Flavians. It had attracted negative connotations under Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero (“under them it became a farce and was often indistinguishable from crudelitas”) and Vitellius (who used it to secure the support of the Spaniards, but his decadence was too much like Nero’s). “Clementia,” Vahl concludes, “was a way for the emperor to connect himself to earlier leaders, but each seemed to lack a full understanding of the virtue.” It reappeared under Trajan, a paedophile with an Alexander complex.

Metastasio’s Tito embodies clementia; as Annio remarks, “ha l’impero e del mondo, e di sè”; Sesto calls him “il più grande, il più giusto, il più clemente Principe della terra”. He sends Berenice away; he refuses to listen to maiestas charges; he rejects a Senate offer to build a temple and worship him as a god (an honour, incidentally, never paid to Titus in his life), and insists that the gold be used to help the survivors of Vesuvius.

Clemency is the emperor’s policy. Do even the stars try to turn him cruel? They shall not. His strength, he declares, is pledged; let us see whether others’ perfidy or Titus’s clemency will endure. (II.xv) The emperor makes it known that he is unchanged; he knows all, he pardons all, he forgets all. Se mi negate che benefico io sia che mi lasciate? (“If you deny me genrosity, what do you leave me?”)

But the emperor is not alone in his virtue; almost all the other characters are equally principled. Annio yields his love for Servilia that Tito may marry her (the duty of a generous lover and a loyal subject); she reveals to Tito that she cannot accept his offer. Sesto refuses to implicate Vitellia. She alone is motivated by unworthy concerns; she wants the throne, she is jealous of Tito, she uses her sexuality to manipulate Sesto. Only at the end does she confess, even though it means renouncing the throne.


Schinkel’s set design.

Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte, appeared a fortnight later. It’s Mozart’s most beloved opera: the second most popular opera in the world after La Traviata, and the most popular opera in Germany and Austria. Admirers claim it’s one of the great achievements of man: a profound, sublime work in which the forces of light / Freemasonry banish darkness and superstition.

Sure, the overture is magnificent, and there’s some lovely imitation Bach. But this mystical pantomime is a mess. It has a lot of kitsch; some of the most irritating characters in opera (that bloody bird-catcher); and an illogical, sententious, and childish libretto Schikaneder made up as he went. And its noble messages boil down to: “Don’t trust women. Or darkies.”

A rather dim prince joins a woman-hating, slave-owning cult, and goes through their weird initiation rituals. The cult leader kidnaps girls ‘for their own good’; has a strict regime of corporal punishment for transgressions (like recapturing escaped prisoners); and has hundreds of brainwashed followers. But he must be good, because he peppers his speech with references to love and brotherhood.

Not sisterhood, of course. The hero is sent on his quest by the Queen of the Night – but she has an XX chromosome, so she’s wrong. “Then it is a woman who has beguiled you? A woman does little, gossips much. Young man, do you believe wagging tongues?” (Act I, sc. 15). Tamino swallows this line quickly; by Act II (sc. 5), he tells Papageno the Queen “is a woman, and has women’s wits!”. The Queen is told not to “delve into mysteries that are unfathomable to a woman’s mind. Your duty, and that of your daughter, is to submit to the guidance of wise men” (Act II, sc. 8). Pamina wants to go back to her mother; Sarastro will not grant her freedom, because her happiness would break if he left Pamina in her mother’s hands. The Queen of the Night is “a proud woman. A man must guide your hearts, For without one every woman tends To step out of her natural sphere” (Act I, sc. 18). There’s even a little duet (‘Bewahret euch vor Weibertücken’): the first duty of the Brotherhood is to beware women’s wiles; death and despair await those led astray by women.

The libretto is equally unsound on race relations. There’s one black character – who wants to rape white women. “Blacks are ugly, and whites are beautiful,” Monostatos sings. The Magic Flute fans claim this is ‘humanising’.

At the end of the opera, the religious cult sends nearly all the women and the black guy to hell. So much for Sarastro’s claim that in these holy halls they know no vengeance, and forgive their enemies.

The Magic Flute is a product of its time, some say. So are Il mondo alla rovescia, set on an island where women rule, and where men find themselves on the receiving end of the objectifying gaze; and Die Neger, where a black servant and a white maid sing an interracial love duet. Both are by Salieri.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • David Cairns, Mozart and His Operas, London: Allen Lane, 2006.
  • Edward J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1947.
  • Alfred Einstein, Mozart: his character – his work, trans. Arthur Mendel and Nathan Broder, London: Cassell, 1946.
  • Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Mozart, London: Victor Gollancz, 1978.
  • Jessica Vahl, “Imperial representations of clementia: From Augustus to Marcus Aurelius”, McMaster University, Ontario, 2007, https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/10272/1/fulltext.pdf.

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