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Over the past century or so, Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito has generally gotten a bad rap: the broke and ailing composer accepted the commission to set a well-worn libretto written in an out-of-date style, farmed the composing of the recitatives out to a student, then took the money and ran. But I’ve always found it hard to square this harsh verdict with the psychologically penetrating depiction of people negotiating the dangerous corridors of power which Mozart’s penultimate opera seems to me to be, the sophisticated summation of themes which dominated both his life and operatic oeuvre.
Entführung ends with the Pasha’s gracious forgiveness of the foreigners who have attempted to escape from his palace. The disembodied voice of Neptune is the “deus ex machina” which forgives all and sets everything right at the conclusion of Idomeneo. In the climactic final scene of Don Giovanni, the statue of the murdered Commendatore offers the dissolute anti-hero forgiveness for his sins if he will repent. Mozart had already set to music the appeal for support and forgiveness to kings, gods and fathers numerous times before he composed his musical portrait of Emperor Titus, just as his life had been endlessly devoted to pleasing and placating the kings, emperors and archbishops who were his patrons, not to mention his own domineering father. Despite the fact that Tito was ostensibly composed to flatter Leopold II on the occasion of his coronation, the edgy depiction of entitled patriarchy which Mozart sculpts from Metastasio’s libretto is, in fact, a very personal statement about his own dealings with all these powerful men. Tito’s unrelenting clemency can at times seem cagily manipulative of the people around him, especially Sesto, whose ambivalent relationship with the Emperor lies at the heart of the piece. No wonder the forbidden siren’s song of revolution which Vitellia croons to Sesto carries an erotic charge no less seductive than Don Giovanni’s libertine cry of “Viva la libertà!” In our lifelong desire to measure up to parental and societal demands, can we ever feel truly free? In the last scene of Tito, after he has been forgiven, Sesto says to Tito, “It is true, Augustus, that you pardon me. But my heart does not absolve me, and will lament my error as long as memory lasts.” Sesto will carry to the grave the guilt which he feels after his failed attempt to bite the patriarchal hand which strokes him. That’s not a very free feeling, but it’s one that Mozart was all too familiar with.
(centre, l – r) Tamara Wilson as Rosalinde, Michael Schade as Gabriel von Eisenstein and Ambur Braid (kneeling) as Adele in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Die Fledermaus, 2012. Photo: Chris Hutcheson © 2012