Psychological portraits: Tito’s Rome

La Clemenza di Tito is not known the way the major operas of Mozart’s maturity are known and loved.  When I say Don Giovanni or Marriage of Figaro or Magic Flute there are tunes that instantly pop into my head by association, as there likely are for everyone else.

Increasingly I am having the same sort of response to Clemenza di Tito as well:

  • because I’m seeing another Toronto production, hot on the heels of a more conservative one by Opera Atelier,
  • because I am playing my recordings of the opera over and over
  • because I am thinking about what Mozart was doing in this opera (and sitting backstage at the show i am doing, thinking…).

While it’s true that he handed off some of the compositional duties on recitatives to someone else, that doesn’t mean the musical numbers he wrote aren’t good.  In fact they’re so spectacularly good that there’s a great deal to discover.  It’s a great joy, as if we suddenly found a new Beethoven symphony or a lost novel from Charles Dickens: because we are still figuring this opera out, as it gets produced more and more.  It’s not simply an opera seria, anymore than any of Mozart’s operas conform to generic expectations.  That Mozart’s ideas weren’t emulated later –one of our tests of musicological importance–doesn’t mean his composition isn’t spectacularly good.

I want to briefly address what Mozart appears to be doing psychologically in this opera, because when you look at it closely, it’s breath-taking.

I begin, though by going to our understanding of human nature, from simple observations about people that are true whether you’re living in the 18th century or the 21st.  Think about adjectives describing personality or behaviour.

Some people are understood to have integrity, consistency.  Those are metaphors really, when applied to the choices people make.  But they are also in a very literal sense true.  Consistency means a lack of inconsistency.  In a human soul that would imply something harmonious and ongoing.

The alternative to consistency? Inconsistency, capriciousness—where we think of sudden and unanticipated actions or impressions—or convolution, when we think of twists and turns in logic and behaviour.

And so we can identify what these look like if we were to draw pictures, the same way that we ‘d recognize what this might sound like in music.  Clarity of musical organization, balance of composition, suggest clarity and balance of mind as well.  Complexity, jaggedness, dissonance?  That would suggest the opposite.

And lo, Mozart wrote musical numbers in La Clemenza di Tito that exemplify such contrasts.  Some of his characters are so balanced and so harmonious in their behaviour that they seem not just sane, but genuinely good.  Annio and Servilia are paragons in this opera.  Each of them sings a brief aria giving advice that falls like healing balm upon the ear.  When they sing a duet together the result might be the prettiest duet ever written.   “Torna di Tito a lato”, sung by Annio, is a musical representation of what it demands, as the harmony calls the listener to literally turn, to return and come home; and that’s precisely what the tune does as well.  I listen to it over and over, never tiring. It’s healing, simple and uncomplicated.  Sigh who needs a shrink when you have friends to sing such gorgeous music? It’s breath-taking in the COC production sung by Wallis Giunta.

Vitellia? If we can put her music on the couch I think it’s fair to say that she is a mess.  She’s upset that she’s been rejected, and so when she’s singing with Sesto, her music is a colossal tease (because haha SHE is a colossal tease). Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, she makes you –and the conductor—wait for her.  At one point, hearing of Tito’s plan to marry her when she has just sent Sesto off to kill him(!) her indecisive agony (even the title sounds nuts! “Vengo … aspettate … Sesto!…”) manifests in tritones, the forbidden interval that hurts the ear, especially when sung repeatedly.   It’s so extreme that it sounds almost comical (and that’s how Opera Atelier played it).

And Sesto? Complex, toyed with by Vitellia, troubled, capable of noble emotions and ignoble passions.  “Parto, parto” is a complex aria of many passions.  He tells Vitellia he is leaving, watching for a reaction (and saying “guardami” loudly in the middle: “LOOK AT ME”) I think Mozart loved Sesto, and maybe that’s why the audience can’t resist this troubled man, usually sung by a woman in modern productions.

There is, of course, another reading one could supply that’s truer to the purposes Mozart was pursuing, namely moral instruction rather than psychology.  This doesn’t really contradict what I am saying, given that singers cannot portray abstractions, but emotions & situations.  It would mean, however, that Mozart wasn’t so much portraying Vitellia as “conflicted” so much as “evil”, which works well with that tri-tone.  But i find this sort of reading risks a two dimensional portrayal and is far less interesting than allowing her character to have depths and conflicts, to be herself a dissenter in the conversation (especially as we see in the last scene of Alden’s production where she faces Tito) rather than a wooden part of a mechanical allegory.  I think Mozart wanted to make this an opera of instruction in some of the same ways that we see in The Magic Flute (the other opera he wrote at the  end of his life).  At times characters begin singing homilies and lessons to the listener.

However you read it, I am hooked.  I can’t get enough of this opera and its complexities.

Isabel Leonard as Sesto in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013, director Christopher Alden . Photo: Michael Cooper

Isabel Leonard as Sesto in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013, director Christopher Alden . Photo: Michael Cooper

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2 Responses to Psychological portraits: Tito’s Rome

  1. Ali Kashani says:

    The opera is generally considered a ‘good but not great’ opera and I disagree with that sentiment. The music isn’t as instantly catchy as Mozart’s more famous operas but once you get to know the music, it becomes quite catchy. I have various numbers from the opera stuck in my head all the time — Sesto’s two great arias, Annio’s second aria, Tito’s last aria, Servillia’s aria, the Sesto/Vitellia and Annio/Servillia duets, the Vitellia/Annio/Publio trio, and of course, Vitellia’s great “Non piu di fiori”, which is probably my favourite of the opera. The overture is great as well, and the Rome burning scene features some of Mozart’s most thrilling music. And dramatically, the piece has a lot of richness with characters are who are multi-dimensional and experience genuine character development. The more I get to know it, the more I’m convinced that TITO is indeed a great opera.

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