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The life of Roman emperor Titus. The libretto, by Pietro Metastasio, was revised by Caterino Mazzolà.
Sept. 6, 1791 at the Estates Theatre in Prague.
The wife of King Leopold II, in whose honour the opera was commissioned, is said to have dismissed it as “German swinishness.” However, the first production of the work was a modest success.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, La clemenza di Tito was one of Mozart’s most popular operas (for example, it was the first Mozart opera to be performed in London), but as Romanticism ascended, the reputation of the opera declined. Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries it was considered second-rate within the body of Mozart’s work, scorned as an imperfect rush job written for mercenary reasons. In the last few decades, many critics have attempted to rehabilitate La clemenza’s reputation, and it is now much more frequently mounted.
When Mozart began composing La clemenza di Tito, the majority of what was to be his final opera, The Magic Flute, had already been completed. Midway through the composition of The Magic Flute, he was approached by impresario Domenico Guardasoni to compose an opera seria for the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bohemia. Since Guardasoni’s contract was signed in early June and the coronation was scheduled for early September, La clemenza di Tito was created under extreme time constraints. To save time, Guardasoni (who had been entrusted with commissioning and co-ordinating the new opera’s creation) selected for the opera an existing libretto by Pietro Metastasio, a libretto over 50 years old that had been set before by nearly as many composers. The subject matter, having as its title character a wise, just, and beloved monarch, was especially appropriate for a coronation.
Guardasoni first approached Antonio Salieri to set the libretto, who was too busy to take on the commission and declined. Mozart (who had worked with Guardasoni before on Don Giovanni), however, accepted, and began work on the project in late July, travelling to Prague near the end of August. Among the time-saving measures used were reducing the length of the libretto by almost a third and sub-contracting out the recitatives (most believe to Mozart’s pupil Sussmayer). Some Mozart scholars believe that some of the music may have actually pre-dated the commission.
Legend holds that Mozart completed the score in 18 days, but most scholars now believe this to be unlikely. However, they also find evidence of hasty work in the score; one of Vitella’s arias is placed in a distinctly lower range than the rest of the part, and some of the recitatives end in the “wrong” key. Some have found the overture to be strangely disconnected from the rest of the score; opinions differ as to whether or not this constitutes a flaw.
Renata Pokupic as Sesto in the Chicago Opera Theater production of La clemenza di Tito. Photo: Richard Hein © 2009