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NEC's Artistic Advisor for Opera Studies, Stephen Lord —called "one of the 25 Most Powerful Names in American Opera" by Opera News Magazine—conducts the NEC Philharmonia and opera students in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito in a concert version in NEC's Jordan Hall. Joshua Major, NEC's Chair of Opera Studies, will direct and has written narration. The cast follows:
Tito: Marco Antonio Jordao
Vitellia: Nataly Wickham
Servilia: Bridget Haile
Sesto: Gillian Lynn Cotter
Annio: Jessica Harika
Publio: Josh Quinn
Narrators: Patricia Goble and Steven Goldstein
Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, either his last or his second- last opera (it was written while he was still in the middle of Die Zauberflöte), has historically gotten a bad rap. It was a modified opera seria, at a time when that operatic form was out of fashion.
And it didn’t please the Empress Maria Luisa (in portrait), for whose coronation with husband Leopold II as King and Queen of Bohemia, it was written. The Empress, an unabashed Italophile who preferred opera buffa, reportedly called it “una porcheria tedesca.” That is variously translated as “German swinishness,” “German rubbish,” or perhaps more coarsely as “German sh@#$%^&.”
Critics up to the modern day, too, have called it undramatic, stilted, old-fashioned, and unmemorable, opining that Mozart, who had only three weeks to write it, was stifled by the restrictive forms and conventions of the outmoded idiom and only took on the commission because he needed the money. Conductors and directors have taken scissors and applied a heavy hand to the piece, chopping out great gobbets of recitative in order to move things along more swiftly.
Mozart’s earliest biographer, Franz Xavier Niemetschek, a first-hand observer of the earliest performances, wrote in 1794:
“…since the subject is too simple to be able to interest the mass of people busy with coronation festivities, balls and illuminations; and since it is—shame on our age—a serious opera, it pleased less in general than its really heavenly music deserved. There is a certain Grecian simplicity, a still sublimity, which strikes a sensitive heart gently but none the less profoundly—which fit admirably to the character of Tito, the times, and the entire subject, and also reflect honor on Mozart’s delicate taste and his sense of characterizations. Connoisseurs are in doubt whether Tito does not in fact surpass Don Giovanni.”
What’s more, it may have been the performance rather than the work itself that contributed to its initial bad impression. As Niemetschek describes it, there was “a miserable castrato and a prima donna who sang more with her hands than in her throat and whom one had to consider a lunatic…”
In recent years, numerous performers have worked to rehabilitate the opera in the public perception. They have argued that the “restrictive” forms of opera seria were considerably relaxed in the Metatstasio libretto revised and compressed by Caterino Mazzolà, which Mozart set; that Mozart displayed a certain freedom in his use of different musical styles, ensemble pieces, and instrumentation. And that the work simply needs performers of great expressivity and stylistic mastery.
They also point to the threads of commonality between Tito and Magic Flute: the Masonic-inspired idée fixe of benevolence, mercy, and wise governance that ties the Roman emperor Tito to Flute’s Sarastro and the actual musical correspondences between the two operas.
But, as Stephen Lord points out, there is just the sheer beauty of the music.
"La Clemenza di Tito comes at a point in Mozart’s life and works where his life was rapidly running short. The piece was a commission turned down by Salieri and it had to be set to an often used libretto by Metastasio. Given that Mozart had in the not very distant past written three operas to words of daPonte and the nearly perfect Magic Flute, anything else would be anticlimactic to these incredibly unique works. But this should never take away from the quality of music by a genius in his full maturity. The dramaturgy might not be that of daPonte and the style of an old fashioned libretto for an opera seria at times dictates a rather old fashioned style of composition. But the genius and inspiration Mozart shine through. I believe this piece is perhaps best done in concert as we can concentrate more on the inherent beauty of the music rather than on some awkward dilemmas posed to a full-fledged production."
Sesto’s famous aria Parto, Parto or Deh, per questo istante, Vitellia’s Rondo Non piǜ di fiori, and the tumultuous finale to Act I, both found on YouTube make the point perfectly.
NEC’s opera department, Lord, and stage director Joshua Major, will give NEC audiences another opportunity to judge for themselves whether Tito is an underappreciated masterpiece.