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Mozart's misfit blossoms

World history and today's understanding of period music make `La Clemenza di Tito' more appealing. CDs and DVDs demonstrate why.

October 01, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

DEUTSCHE Grammophon has released a new recording of Mozart's long-unloved last opera, "La Clemenza di Tito." On the back of the two-CD set, the company calls it the first recording in more than a decade of "Mozart's late, dramatic masterpiece." Every one of those claims -- except that Mozart wrote the opera late in life -- is deceptive, debatable or downright wrong.

The blurb goes on to maintain that "Clemenza" is "a gripping tale now undergoing an unprecedented renaissance in opera houses worldwide." That part is true.

"Clemenza" has been slowly creeping into the repertory during the past two decades. But it still is a score that I suspect few opera-goers, other than hard-core Mozarteans, know or look forward to encountering.

Unlike Mozart's mature comic operas, with their universal insights into sex and society, "Clemenza" is a stilted opera seria, with stoically elevated heroic gestures from which we are supposed to derive moral refreshment. Though in the midst of writing "The Magic Flute," Mozart accepted the "Clemenza" commission to celebrate Leopold II's coronation in Prague. He was to base the new work on a half-century-old libretto, already used by 45 composers, about a kindly, mensch-among-mensches Roman emperor.

Mozart was ill, and death may well have weighed on his mind. He had begun his Requiem, which he never lived to complete. He was not as impoverished as romantic legend has it, but he had many expenses and needed money. His wife was pregnant with their sixth child.

With only the overture and a march left to go on "Flute," Mozart set out for Prague just 18 days before the Sept. 6, 1791, premiere, beginning work on "Clemenza" during the coach ride from Vienna. He was so rushed that he turned the recitatives over to his pupil, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, who also completed the Requiem.

The premiere proved a flop. The empress is famously said to have dismissed it as "German rubbish" (although it's an Italian opera in form and language, and Mozart was Austrian). Mozart died three months later at age 35. The opera did catch on to a certain degree after his death. But by the middle of the 19th century, it went back out of fashion and stayed that way for a century or more.

Typical of the attitude toward "Clemenza" is that of one of our finest Mozartean minds, the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen: "It is difficult to convey how unmemorable it is," he wrote of the opera, which he otherwise barely mentions in "The Classical Style," his classic 1971 study of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Moreover, he let that statement stand in the book's 1997 revision, along with his doubt "that even the greatest of stagings could save it."

DG's assertion that "Clemenza" is a dramatic masterpiece is obviously not universally shared. But most major houses now mount the work. An opera jet-setter, next month, could attend three productions on three consecutive evenings (Nov. 25, 26 and 27) in Oslo, Budapest, Hungary, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Calling the new DG set the first complete "Clemenza" recording in more than a decade is also misleading. Released two weeks ago and only shortly after the DG set is a more complete recording conducted by Rene Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi. DG trims the recitatives, we find out. Moreover, four -- count 'em four -- DVDs of the opera already have been released this year as part of the Mozart crush, this being the anniversary of his 250th birthday.

A compassionate leader

CLEARLY, "Clemenza" is upon us. And the timing, it turns out, couldn't be better. This is a perfect opera for the 21st century. Only now, after decades of research into period style, are we learning how to effectively perform the opera, to make it sound modern as well as seem theatrically relevant.

And if exalting a generous and wise leader able to disarm his enemies through compassion was nothing more than a dutiful pat on the back of 18th century monarchs who commission operas, that political message now feels remarkable in a world where high-minded statesmen are in such short supply.

If anything, Tito, the emperor, is, in the version by Pietro Metastasio (the supreme opera seria librettist), way too nice. He chooses not to marry Berenice, the woman he loves, because that would not best serve Rome. He rejects his next choice because she loves another.

There are many typical opera seria plot elaborations, which include a scheme to kill Tito by his best friend, Sesto. Sesto loves Vitellia. Vitellia, who wants to be empress, uses Sesto to foment revolution, etc., etc. Though terribly hurt by the betrayals, too-too good Tito pardons all.

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