Fifty years ago you’d have been pressed to find a production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (“Titus’ Clemency,” 狄多王的仁慈) anywhere on the planet. Today, by contrast, it’s being widely promoted as the great composer’s lost masterpiece. Totally different from his celebrated comic operas, is this a dull piece of period classicism written mostly for the money in just 18 days? Or is it an important work showing the mature Mozart as a humanist and an aesthete, eager to promote the idea of the possibility of a benign autocrat two years after the onset of the French Revolution?
Maybe the truth is that audiences have become slightly over-familiar with Figaro, Giovanni and The Magic Flute, and directors and musicians, alert now to the conventions of classical formality by the newly-aired operas of Handel, have turned to Mozart’s penultimate opera as something refreshingly different.
Mozart was a Mason. As such he was probably genuinely interested in the idea of philosopher-kings, as the character of Sarastro in The Magic Flute (a very Masonic work that he was working on at the time) testifies. Furthermore, Mozart’s widow Constanza organized fund-raising productions of La Clemenza immediately after husband’s death, an unlikely choice if it had been viewed in the family as merely a potboiler.
The opera opens with the scheming Vitellia, desperate to marry the compassionate Emperor Tito, plotting to have him murdered after he’s announced his intention to marry somebody else. Her chosen instrument is Sesto, a close friend of Tito, but a man who’s so besotted with Vitellia that he’ll do anything to get her to notice him.
Sesto’s friend Annio is in love with Servillia, Sesto’s sister. When Tito announces her as his choice for bride she protests that she loves Annio, and Tito selflessly relinquishes his claim. Vitellia now thinks she’s back in with a chance and sends a message to Sesto to delay, but it’s too late.
Luckily a trick has resulted in Sesto failing to kill Tito, but his intentions have been made clear and he’s arrested. Tito now has to decide how far his magnanimity reaches, and reluctantly orders Sesto to be thrown to the lions. Sesto, unwilling to implicate his beloved Vitellia, says nothing about her involvement. When the day of the execution arrives, however, Vitellia finally confesses. Tito, true to form once again, forgives everyone. When I watched a DVD of the work recently I was astonished at how moving I found it. Conflicting emotions are the stuff of opera, and perhaps of all drama, and the anguish suffered by first Sesto, then Tito, and finally Vitellia was everywhere very affective.
The costume designs suggest Taipei’s production will bring the action forward to 19th century Europe. The Taipei Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by the UK’s versatile and energetic Benjamin Bayle, founder of the period-instrument Saraband Consort. And the director is the Australian-born and widely-experienced Justin Way.
Four guest soloists will take the major roles. Tito is Finnur Bjarnason while Vitellia is Soula Parassidis. The parts of Sesto and Annio are written for high voices and will be sung by mezzo-sopranos Caitlin Hulcup and Wallis Giunta respectively. Taiwan provides two soloists — Chen Yen-lin (陳妍陵) will sing Servillia, and Wu Bai Yu-his (巫白玉璽) will sing the head of the imperial guard, Publio.
Subtitles will be in Chinese and English. As for something to watch in preparation, there’s currently no complete video version on YouTube, but the many extracts there are worth investigating, especially those featuring Elina Garanca as Sesto.