Why ‘Tito’? Mozart Masterpiece Makes Rousing Comeback

A scene from the LA Opera’s 2019 production of Mozart’s ‘La clemenza di Tito.’ (Photo by Cory Weaver / LA Opera)
By Ilana Walder-Biesanz

Static, written in 18 days, a flop at its premiere, filled with recitatives not by Mozart. Dismissals of La clemenza di Tito abound, despite a plot that is rich with conflict and a beautifully orchestrated score that includes intricate ensembles (rare for the opera seria genre), showpiece arias with clarinet, and celebratory choruses.

Matthew Polenzani as Tito and Joyce DiDonato in the Met production (Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera)

Fortunately, Tito has made a comeback. The early 2000s saw a wave of imaginative productions across Europe. The Salzburg Festival’s project to stage all of Mozart’s operas yielded a 2003 version by Martin Kušej with a multi-story set and bitterly fierce characterizations. Paris, Zurich, Vienna, Aix-en-Provence, Brussels, and Munich all produced Tito in the years that followed, in stagings that explored everything from the pressure of the public gaze (director Ivo van Hove, in Brussels) to the complexities of gender (director Jan Bosse, in Munich).

Tito follows the opera seria pattern: six principal singers, an ancient setting, a conflict between love and honor, and a happy ending thanks to a virtuous ruler. Vitellia, daughter of a deposed emperor, seduces Sesto into assassinating the current emperor, Tito. The assassination attempt fails, and Sesto is arrested. After an inner struggle, Tito decides to forgive the conspirators.

The story offers an enticing canvas for stage directors. In 2017 in Salzburg, Peter Sellars made Tito a comment on the response to terrorism. His controversial staging eliminated most of the recitatives, inserted music from other works by Mozart, and changed the opera’s ending. (Spoiler: This Tito dies, and pardons his attackers nonetheless.) At Glyndebourne, in the same year, Claus Guth played up the friendship between Tito and Sesto with video projections of their youth together. He gave the opera a dark psychological twist, emphasizing Tito’s loneliness, Vitellia’s manipulations, and Sesto’s despair.

These productions – and Tito more generally – captured the imaginations of young, digital operagoers on Twitter and Tumblr. There’s a small but passionate crowd of twenty-somethings online who will recognize a reference to the “potato Tito” (Paris 2005) and can identify the company, cast, and scene from a single photo of any modern production. We have Twitter handles like @SestoInfedele and @nonpiudifiori. Many of us are queer and interested in the gender-bending and homoerotic possibilities of trouser roles.

A scene from Act II of the Met production of ‘La clemenza di Tito.’ (Termine)

This year, Tito fans in the United States can rejoice over coincidental runs in March and April by the Los Angeles Opera and Metropolitan Opera. The Met offering, which continues through April 20 (when it is featured on the Met Saturday matinee radio broadcast), is the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production premiered in Cologne in 1969 and first seen in New York in 1984. (If it looks familiar to Tito neophytes, you are not imagining things. Ponnelle staged all of Mozart’s opere serie with similar sets and costumes, so this Tito looks a lot like the Met’s Idomeneo, also a Ponnelle revival.) This staging is often credited with being the first modern-day production to take Tito seriously. It doesn’t eliminate the recitatives, overwhelm the action, or otherwise apologize for the work. Ponnelle makes the opera about relationships – arias are pleas, debates, or conversations with other characters, not showpieces presented to the audience. The crumbling Roman ruins of the backdrop and half-ancient, half-18th-century costumes make an evocative stage for a compelling human drama.

The drama of the opera was especially apparent with the cast for this revival, one of the best I can imagine. Opening night on March 30 had some technical glitches – delayed entrances and ensembles that weren’t quite together. But the acting and singing were beyond any other Tito I have seen. Joyce DiDonato’s Sesto moved from youthful exuberance to guilt so crushing he could barely stand. Small nuances – like Sesto’s stumble out of sight and then rigidly erect public posture on his march to execution – heightened the emotion. DiDonato’s singing astounded, too, from the speed and ease of the triplets in “Parto, parto” to the beautiful and thoughtful ornamentation of “Deh, per questo istante solo.”

Elza van den Heever as Vitellia at the Met (Termine)

As Vitellia, Elza van den Heever spit out witheringly disdainful lines of recitative and turned “Non più di fiori” into a mad scene. The role demands a mezzo’s earthy lower register, a soprano’s shining high notes, and agility with coloratura; van den Heever delivered all three. Tenor Matthew Polenzani’s Tito was anguished but firm, sung with full, flexible sound. He clearly felt the weight of his public duties keenly and yearned for closer relationships. The three smaller roles were luxuriously cast: Christian Van Horn made an upright, strong-voiced Publio; Emily D’Angelo expressed herself movingly as Annio; and Ying Fang lent chirping tone and graceful gestures to Servilia. In the pit, Lothar Koenigs paced each scene well and strongly underlined contrasting moods.

Although it, too, claims a classical setting, the new Los Angeles Opera production by Thaddeus Strassberger (seen March 24) could not be more different from Ponnelle’s. It betrays a lack of faith in the material. Recitatives are cut so viciously that the plot barely holds together; arias in the second half are re-ordered for no evident reason. The set and costumes are a teenage boy’s fantasy of Rome: shiny gold everywhere, servant girls preening in flowing silks, and spear carriers dashing about in hardened breastplates. Sesto’s and Annio’s awful beards, the half-modernized language of the supertitles, the elimination of character nuance, and the overly literal staging (Tito offering fruit while singing “l’unico frutto è questo,” flowers descending during “Non più di fiori”): all these elements implied that the audience wasn’t intelligent enough to understand opera seria. The production is utterly devoid of drama: Characters park and bark while scurrying supernumeraries and bombastic rituals provide onstage action. The result is a series of well-sung numbers instead of a dramma per musica.

Vocalism made amends. Elizabeth DeShong’s Sesto alone was worth the price of admission. She sang with a core of sound so steely it was hard to reconcile with Sesto’s weak character. Her strength of tone didn’t prevent her from executing trills and triplets perfectly. Her playful dialogue with clarinetist Stuart Clark in “Parto, parto” was a highlight.

Guanqun Yu as Vitellia in the LA production (Weaver)

Guanqun Yu made an unusually ethereal Vitellia, light of voice and flirting rather than menacing in demeanor. Russell Thomas’ gruff and shouted Tito has never been my favorite. This performance didn’t change my mind, but I found much to admire in his expressive use of dynamics during his recitatives and arias. Janai Brugger sang Servilia with floated top notes, delivering a melting rendition of “S’altro che lagrime.” Taylor Raven gave Annio mushy diction but a lovely legato line. James Creswell’s pompous Publio alternately boomed and croaked. Conductor James Conlon jumped with energy in the overture, but that driving force didn’t last. Plodding delivery of recitatives undercut the urgency of an already static production.

The Los Angeles production was received as a glitzy spectacle, on par with Strassberger’s lavish Nabucco. Of course, there are plenty of operas that lend themselves to that style, and many are better known (and easier to sell tickets to) than Tito. This raises the question: Why are we seeing more Titos now? Internationally the comeback is evident. Almost unperformed for more than a century, Tito made it into Operabase’s 100 most-performed operas worldwide in 13 of the last 15 seasons.

In an interview, Los Angeles Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch said staging Tito was part of a broader project to “visit or revisit long-neglected Mozart masterpieces.” (The project had already tackled Abduction from the Seraglio and Idomeneo; no word on whether Mozart geeks can look forward to Mitridate or Lucio Silla in future seasons.) Now was the right time because they “could assemble what [they] believe to be the ideal cast.” Despite Mozart’s reputation as easy fare for young singers, Tito’s six principal roles are demanding and difficult to fill. Koelsch speculated that revived global interest in the opera might be driven by a generation of star singers suited to this repertoire.

This is also an opera about politics and government, easily adaptable to address a host of contemporary issues. The two trouser roles (both Sesto and Annio are nearly always sung by mezzo-sopranos these days) create opportunities to comment on gender and sexuality, as does the relationship between Sesto and Tito. (Only a few stagings I know of have explicitly posited Sesto and Tito as gay lovers, but even in “straight” stagings their affection adds to the opera’s romantic tangle.) The stakes of the drama are high: the life of an emperor and the future of a country. It’s a serious exploration of human emotion and relationships, with a rare-to-opera (though not to opera seria) happy ending.

Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto and Taylor Raven as Annio in the LA production of ‘La clemenza di Tito.’ (Weaver)

The opera seria form imposes a strict musical and dramatic structure, but within that structure there is great freedom for a director to decide what Tito is about. Terrorism, gender identity, abusive relationships, government corruption, media overload, the price of power, and (of course) forgiveness – all have been themes of Tito productions, and many more are surely possible. Audiences’ lack of familiarity with the piece can work to a director’s advantage. Few viewers are attached to specific costuming or staging choices or will notice musical cuts and re-orderings. That increases the pressure on the director to tell a compelling story, but it also lets them choose which story to tell.

Many of these selling points apply to other opere serie as well. Tito has an advantage over other members of the genre in that the composer is well known and the work is mature in its musical setting (especially compared to Mozart’s earlier experiments with opera seria, which tend to be unbroken strings of showy arias). I hope the revival of Tito is a trend that lasts, and that it leads to other opere serie being rediscovered as well.

Ilana Walder-Biesanz reviews opera and theater for San Francisco Classical Voice, Opera Online, Bachtrack, and Stark Insider. She studied in England as a Gates-Cambridge Scholar (European Literature and Culture) and in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar (Theater Studies).