Emmanuel Music brought this neglected Mozart opera to life with polished musicianship and excellent singers.
By Susan Miron
Concertgoers expect certain things from Emmanuel Music’s concerts: excellent singers, superb instrumentalists, and performances that are well-conducted, well-attended, and historically informed. Last Saturday night, all these criteria were met in a thoroughly engaging, un-staged version of Mozart penultimate, rarely heard opera, La Clemenza di Tito (K. 621).
The unpopularity of this lovely opera arose mostly because it is an opera seria, a form Mozart had, it was thought, abandoned. Written at the same time as The Magic Flute and the Requiem, it was commissioned for the coronation in Prague of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It was the last year of Mozart’s life. He composed it in about six weeks; it was copied, learned, and rehearsed in nine days. It used to be thought that he composed it in 19 days, but modern research has shown this conjecture to be false; he was neither surprised by the commission nor rushed. Three weeks after its premiere, The Magic Flute debuted in Vienna; nine weeks later, Mozart died. The opera’s honoree, Leopold II, died just three months later.
Clemenza was not exactly well received. Leopold’s Empress famously described it as “porcheria tedesca“—German rubbish—and critics for 200 years have complained about its being unmemorable and lacking drama. Apparently the biggest problem were the many recitatives, part of the package of opera seria. Finally, some productions tossed out the recitatives completely or had a professional rewrite the recitatives. It has only been in the past few decades that this opera has been revived; it is still a rarity on stage.
Emmanuel’s staging had the spirited Susan Larson write and speak her lines from a lectern. Ms. Larson is a gifted raconteur, and she humanized the characters and their complicated tangle of relationships. She was certainly among the evening’s highlights. Composer John Harbison, Emmanuel Music principal guest conductor, gave an unusually interesting pre-concert lecture. Forty operas, he informed us, had already been composed on this theme when Mozart got to it, and he had already composed two other opera seria. Mozart was most likely intrigued by the story’s ideals and ideas about friendship and freemasonry. Mr. Harbison amused the audience with a geometric map of the characters with arrows pointing to who most is affecting whom. It actually helped a lot.
The title character Tito (based loosely on Roman history’s Titus Vespasian) was chosen by Mozart to be a tenor rather than the traditional castrato. At the time the opera opens, Tito had been forced to give up his Barbarian mistress Berenice and is being pursued by Vitellia who wants desperately, at at all costs, to be empress. A spitfire seductress, she is so power hungry and psychologically erratic that she demands that Sextus, who is madly in love with her (“Your fury sets me aflame”) kill Tito, his closest friend. Before the opera opens, Tito had rejected his love Berenice, and now he is in love with Servilia, whom he wants to marry. Servilia, however, is in a stable love relationship with Annius. Vitella dispatches Sextus to kill Tito, but Sextus kills the wrong guy. That’s our opera’s Act I.
In Act II, after much lovely singing, Tito inexplicably pardons Sextus, his once-dear friend, and also forgives Vitella. A clement and forgiving guy, indeed. As Mr. Harbison remarked, “The forgiveness quotient is staggering . . . over the top.”
Ryan Turner, music director of Emmanuel Music, conducted very well, and the orchestra of familiar freelancers performed with a clarity befitting Mozart. Peggy Pearson was the excellent oboist, and the two clarinets (clarinetist Eran Egozy and basset hornist Dianne Heffner) expertly played their prominent parts in two arias with instrumental obbligati. The 15 member choir sounded beautiful each time they sang. Tenor William Hite was an affecting and emotionally gripping Tito. Annio was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal (my reason for hearing this production) with sensitivity and a glorious voice. She and soprano Susan Consoli made a strikingly matched set of voices when as Annio and Servilia they sang, “Ah, eliminate from life all that is not love!” The all-important role of Sesto was sung well by mezzo-soprano Krista River, who must grapple with the thorny problem of betraying a close friend. Once the character is forgiven, she sings a plangent aria:
You forgive me, Caesar, it is true;
but my heart, that will lament
its error as long as memory lasts,
does not forgive me.
Soprano Deborah van Renterghem had the challenging role of singing a volcanic, volatile Vitellia. She was particularly good in her aria with clarinet. Both she and Ms. River gave compelling characterizations and sang exquisitely. Baritone Aaron Engebreth was, as always, a joy to hear in the role of Publio.
Emmanuel Music bought this neglected opera to life with polished musicianship and excellent singers. The tiresome recitatives were banished, replaced by the charming synopses of Ms. Larson. Bravo to all.