La Clemenza di Tito, Opera by W. A. Mozart
The summer of 1791 was busy for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The prolific Austrian composer was putting the finishing touches on Die Zauberflöte, one of his signature comic operas, when an unexpected commission from Prague landed on his desk. Less than three weeks later, La clemenza di Tito was completed, and it takes the stage of Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence in its full glory.
When Mozart accepted the proposal, time was of the essence. Prague-based impresario Domenico Guardasoni needed an opera seria to mark the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, and his first choice – Antonio Salieri – had turned him down. To save production time, Guardasoni insisted Pietro Metastasio’s decades-old libretto for La clemenza di Tito (or ‘The Clemency of Titus’) be used.
Unimpressed with the original text, which had been set by numerous past composers, Mozart hired librettist Caterino Mazzolà to modernise the antiquated lyrics and plot lines. The result was a dynamic and ‘faster’ opera seria in two acts. Befitting the royal occasion of its composition, La clemenza di Tito presents the Roman Emperor Titus’ stately wisdom and humane treatment of a group of conspirators who, driven by various motives, attempt his assassination.
Mozart raced against the clock and delivered the opera in time for Leopold II’s coronation. Thus, La clemenza di Tito had its premiere on 6 September 1791 at the Estates Theatre in Prague. While we do not know what the Holy Roman Emperor thought of the stage work in his honour, some historical document suggest his wife Maria Luisa derided it as “German garbage”. Whatever the royals thought, however, we definitely know that audiences grew to love La clemenza di Tito, and it remains a respected work in the Mozart catalogue.
Musically, La clemenza di Tito shows Mozart stripped down to the essentials but still sparkling with creativity. The orchestration is quite stock and, although it carries the composer’s typical energy and flair, it serves a background function more than usual. The two male leads – Titus and his would-be assassin Sesto – deliver the bulk of the notable arias. The conspirator’s ‘Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio’ is the stand-out solo number, in which Sesto decides to kill Titus. Watch out for the basset clarinet following the soprano castrato’s vocal lines!