I am not a politically motivated person. I was born and I grew up in Greece, the country that gave birth to democracy, western civilization, yadayadayada… When it comes to politics, however, modern day Greece is the worst place to live in on a global scale. The people running the country are the worst of the worst – they have no “gravitas”, they are no “personas”, they have no clear idea of what they want for the country, only what they want for themselves and they are the same people (or families) since 1973; in short, they are caricatures of politicians, not the real McCoy. The faces may change, but the (sur)names do not. Of course, it is my humble opinion that no strong political figure has emerged after the end of World War II on an international level. Yes, not even JFK. It is my belief that people who decide to run for a political office, no matter how well educated or honest they may be, they will end up corrupt. Politics does not fulfill dreams, it crushes them.
By now you probably wonder why I am opening this entry with an anti-political rant. There are two reasons: The first is that Greece holds communal elections (thankfully I do not have to vote there, since I no longer live there) and of course we have the upcoming elections for the European Parliament (unfortunately I have to vote in these, because I still live in Europe); the second is that the bronze medal on my list goes to an opera with a political theme – although certainly not as political as some Russian operas of the 19th century. By the way, my Facebook account is filled with political adverts from aspiring candidates from Greece. Clearly, the fact that I have changed my living status to an entirely different country does not mean anything to Facebook. Too bad, because all this political propaganda is really getting on my nerves!
Back to the subject of the opera, however, it is probably an unusual choice, for many reasons. The musicologists, although they acknowledge it as being the last opera seria, do not praise the work much. In their claim, the composer had greater moments in his short life. Also, it is one of those typically “enlightened” operas that predetermine the outcome of the plot in the title – that might make people less willing to see it, since they know what happens in the end, before the opera has even begun. And then there is the obvious historical discrepancy between the title role and the original. I am a huge fan of the underdogs, though, and I root strongly for this one (and the underdog that’s in it as well). Oh, and I believe that the opera should have a different title too, but later on that subject. In case you have not understood what the subject matter is, here comes the revelation: Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (translated in plain English as Titus clemency).
SPOILER ALERT! THERE IS NO NEED TO BRUSH UP ON YOUR ROMAN HISTORY, BECAUSE THIS TITUS IS NOTHING LIKE THE ACTUAL EMPEROR, BUT DO WATCH THE OPERA FIRST IF YOU HAVEN’T.
Ok, so Mozart’s ultimate (or penultimate opera, there is some disagreement as to whether this or The Magic Flute is really the last opera he composed – although, if one accepts the fact that The Magic Flute is actually a Singspiel the problem is automatically solved; but who am I to argue with the musicologists?!) work was a commission for a royal wedding, which pretty much explains why there is an enlightened emperor and a seemingly happy ending to it. But there is SOOOOO much more to this opera than that!
Let’s start with the really obvious thing: the title. In it you have the word “clemency” and the name “Tito”. So, even if you have absolutely no idea about who this Tito guy is, you know that he is bound to be clement or more eloquently put, merciful. What the title does not reveal is to whom or what this clemency is extended and why – which is the reason you have to watch the opera.
Moving on to the plot: If your roman history is slightly up to date, you will be disappointed to find out that this particular Tito, although based on the historical Roman emperor Tito, has absolutely nothing in common with his namesake. The explanation to this terrible digression is extremely simple: Metastasio’s libretto (which was a huge hit apparently and a number of others used it as well, but obviously Mozart’s version is the best) was composed during a period when the past was glorified, even if it did not deserve such glorification, for the edification of the aristocratic society and its subtle education through the art. It was a “win win” situation (unless the target group didn’t get the message of course, in which case it was a “win lose” situation). Back to the plot: Said emperor has a very good friend, who goes by the name of Sesto. He has fallen victim to the treacherous love of Vitellia, a Roman princess, who is power-hungry and was once in love with Tito too. Obviously, he scorned her and chose a Jewish princess for a while. But because the Romans would not have taken well to a Jewish princess as their emperor’s wife, Tito sends Berenice away and decides to marry Servilia instead, who is Sesto’s sister. Servilia however is in love with Annio, Sesto’s best friend and a confidant to the emperor as well. Now, you are free to guess as to who betrays Tito and why…
The obvious and most correct answer is Vitellia. She feels cheated out of her throne (apparently her father was the previous emperor and Tito overthrew him) and out of her love (I already mentioned her feeling for Tito). She does plot against Tito. But she does it in the most devious of ways that makes this particular female hero one of the most characteristic examples of femme fatales. She does not simply want to take the throne away from Tito, no, that would not be enough to quench her thirst for vengeance; instead she goes one step further and seduces Tito’s best friend and demands of him to overthrow the emperor. Sesto finds himself in the most uncomfortable position a man could possibly end up in. He is reluctant to organize the coup, but he burns for Vitellia; his desire for her is unstoppable. Their first scene together (opening the opera) is indicative of Vitellia’s control over him: she uses all her female charms to force him into action. Sesto succumbs. There is a momentary stay in their plans, when Annio informs them that Tito has sent Berenice away. Vitellia’s hopes of marrying Tito are rekindled, Annio asks Sesto’s help to demand Servilia’s hand in marriage from Tito, not knowing that Tito plans on marrying Servilia himself. The two friends find out together and it is Annio who breaks the news to his beloved. She is so desperate, that she goes to Tito and openly declares her love for Annio. To this revelation Tito is overjoyed and releases her of any obligations towards him. This sub-plot then is concluded and left aside. Vitellia, however, has learned that Tito plans on marrying Servilia and forces Sesto into action. Just as he runs off to gather his co-conspirators, Publio (Tito’s advisor) and Annio inform her that Tito has chosen her to be his wife. All hell breaks loose, of course and a desperate Vitellia goes off in search of Sesto, hoping to stop him. Too late. Sesto and his hired hands have set the Capitol on fire and Sesto stabs a man he mistakes for the emperor. Rome burns – accompanied by some magnificent music and the first act ends there.
You can see where this is going, right? Sesto swears to Vitellia that he will keep her out of this, Annio wants him to ask for Tito’s forgiveness, the guy Sesto stabs does not die, but instead lives to tell the tale (which obviously makes things for Sesto a lot more difficult), Tito is torn between his love for his friend and his position as emperor, Vitellia is tormented by guilt; I could go on all day! What happens, finally, is what the title has already hinted at: Tito proves himself merciful to all who conspired against him (Vitellia admits her crime too) and the Romans can sing a lovely chorus in praise of their enlightened emperor who is so generous. So, “Ende gut, alles gut” as my German friends would say? Far from it.
While the opera conforms seemingly to the opera seria rule of the “lieto fine”, this ending is most certainly not happy. Tito forgives, but he does not forget; just as everybody else does not – and will not. There is no way in hell that Vitellia can marry Tito now and her relationship with Sesto has been damaged beyond repair. Some stage directors choose to have Sesto pair off with Vitellia in the end, but that, in my humble opinion, is a terrible faux pas. The ideal scenario for Sesto would be to self-exile himself somewhere far away! The only happy ending (which is entirely forgotten) is Annio and Servilia’s relationship. But nobody really cares about them, right? (Although, they do sing a crushingly beautiful duet in the first act, which always makes me tear up!)
Now, here’s the thing: this opera should not be called “La clemenza di Tito”. It should be called “Die Leiden des Sesto” (“The Sorrows of Sesto”). Or simply “Sesto”. Because, let’s face it people, the real hero here is Sesto. Everybody wants something from him. Vitellia wants revenge (and his body occasionally). Annio wants Servilia’s hand in marriage. Tito wants Sesto to be more than he actually is, namely a servant in the broad sense, not the “Dinner is served, your magnificence” sense. And what does Sesto want? Vitellia and to be loyal to his emperor. This is why this conflict of interests plays out so magnificently well. Sesto is the quintessentially romantic guy, the knight in shining armor, the true and loyal companion; in short, he is a transcendent character. It is his small attachment to bodily charms and attractions that make him go rogue. But he constantly doubts himself, is constantly trying to back out of this situation, constantly self-punishing (after the deed is done) himself. And while a part of him is grateful when Tito pardons him and doesn’t send him to the lions, another part knows that he will never manage to extinguish this stigma of the traitor that he has brought upon himself. The question Sesto makes us pose is: Are we supposed to follow our lovers blindly into everything they request of us or are we to remain faithful to a friend (who might also be in a powerful position, thus making matters more serious)?
There is no answer to this question and for good reason. Sesto’s dilemma is constructed in a manner to exemplify the emperor’s magnificence. In any other situation, the traitor would have been executed, no questions asked. But this particular Tito, because he has to function as a role model for a future monarch, is guided into this situation, in order to portray this enlightened government. If only things could be like that in real life… Alas, there are no enlightened rulers these days – and certainly no men like Sesto either.
On a more cheerful note, there is the music. I cannot begin to understand why the musicologists scorn this piece. Is it so obvious to their ears? Just because it makes no innovations, they have to condemn it as a moderate success? If I am asked why this particular Mozartian opera tops every other Mozartian opera, I simply answer: because the music is sublime. It is! From the very first note of the overture, to the very last note of the septet and chorus that closes the work, no emotion is left wanting. It soars into inexplicable heights and dives into heart wrenching abysses. It is sweet, loving, violent, possessive, passionate, dignified, terrible, descriptive, painful. This opera is one of the few examples of perfect words-set-to-music. Mozart understands the language deeply, he grasps the greatness of his characters and manages to make them relatable. This opera is the most fitting end of opera seria in any given context. Period.
On a final note to my favorite staging. I adore the production listed in the video below. I understand that many do not like it – for various reasons. But so far (and I have seen quite a few stagings of this opera, so I can speak from experience), this is the version that stays truest to the characters themselves and does not make caricatures of them. Oh, and, of course, this production includes the one and only Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto and the truly magnificent Dorothea Röschmann as Vitellia – they both nail their parts… So, enjoy and remember: there is no such thing as a perfect government!