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Podcast: La clemenza di Tito

This episode of our podcast explores Mozart's opera La clemenza di Tito

This summer, Glyndebourne presents only its second ever production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

In this episode of the Glyndebourne podcast, experts including Glyndebourne Music Director Robin Ticciati, classicist William Fitzgerald, Mozart scholar Julian Rushton and Glyndebourne Dramaturg Cori Ellison, explore the work.

Listen in full or read the blog below.

Also available on iTunes

Presenter: Katie Derham. ​​Produced by Katherine Godfrey for Whistledown Productions for Glyndebourne Festival 2017. ​​Music from the Warner Classics recording of La clemenza di Tito​.

A reputation for clemency

La clemenza di Tito is a powerful parable of love and friendship, vengeance and mercy, loosely based on the life of the first-century Roman Emperor Titus.

Much of our knowledge of Titus comes from an account of his life by the Roman historian Suetonius.

William Fitzgerald, Professor of Latin Language and Literature at King’s College London, said: ‘The reputation for clemency comes from a single act that’s recorded in Suetonius and is the basis for the opera. And that is that two patricians are known to be conspiring against him, and he pardons them. Not only does he pardon them but he actually sends off to the mother of one of these conspirators to reassure her that her son is OK.’

‘The next day, at the arena at the Colosseum, where the final scene is set in Mozart’s opera, he asks for the swords of the gladiators to be brought and invites the conspirators to test the swords. Now that’s a considerable act of trust if you’re handing swords to people who have conspired against you.’

Our previous production of La clemenza di Tito, directed by Nicholas Hytner, Festival 1999. Photo: Mike Hoban.

‘Quite hard dramatically to carry off’

As La clemenza di Tito begins, Vitellia, daughter of the former Emperor Vitellius, is set upon seeking revenge on the current Emperor Tito, whose father deposed her father.

She pressures Tito’s childhood friend Sesto to carry out her murderous revenge, leaving Sesto torn between his love for Vitellia and loyalty to Tito.

It will come as little surprise that La clemenza di Tito ends in a grand act of pardon by the Emperor.

Cori Ellison, said: ‘It’s a scene that, actually, is quite hard dramatically to carry off because it’s this series of pardons of people who have tried to do awful things to him! But it is of course very serious and it’s a very enlightened demonstration of the power of mercy.’

Mozart’s final opera

La clemenza di Tito was Mozart’s final opera, written in 1791, the year of his death. He was commissioned to write the work in celebration of the coronation of Leopold II, the Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia.

At the time, Mozart was already working on one of his greatest works – Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute.

Julian Rushton, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Leeds, said: ‘It was a very special kind of commission, so it had to be an Italian, serious opera. Whereas what Mozart had been working on was a quite serious but also quite comic, German opera, The Magic Flute.’

‘There was a legend that he had 18 days to write this opera; it’s probably not true, he had more like six weeks. There are 24 musical numbers in La clemenza di Tito and that’s good going – four pieces each week. He seems to have had an assistant, probably Süssmayr, and Süssmayr was responsible for composing the simple recitative in which the action mostly unfolds. Mozart wrote all the material with orchestra, which is to say the overture, arias, ensembles and so forth.’

Painting of a young Mozart in the Glyndebourne Organ Room. Photo: Leigh Simpson.

A ‘true opera’

In creating La clemenza di Tito, Mozart recycled a well-known text by Metastasio that had already been set by numerous composers, so the story would have been very familiar to the audience.

However, Metastasio’s libretto was vastly cut and reshaped by the Italian librettist, Caterino Mazzolà, transforming it from an old-fashioned, pure opera seria into what Mozart called ‘una vera opera’, a ‘true opera’.

Glyndebourne Dramaturg, Cori Ellison said: ‘A libretto is an outline, it’s stick figures in a way. It’s like opening up a colouring book and seeing just the back and white lines. What any composer should do, and what the greatest composers do, like Mozart, is to add the colours and the shadings.’

La clemenza di Tito features some of Mozart’s greatest and most pioneering writing for the clarinet, then only recently accepted into the classical orchestra.

He composed the clarinet obligato and basset horn parts for his great friend Anton Stadler.

Glyndebourne’s Music Director Robin Ticciati said: ‘The clarinet plays an incredibly important role in clothing the emotions of Sesto, adding to them, prompting them. It’s like an internal dialogue in the character.’

The basset horn features in the Vitellia’s aria ‘Non piu di fiori’, which challenges the full range of technical and musical skill for a soprano, as Julian Rushton explains: ‘Vitellia goes very low, matching almost the sonority of the basset horn obligato. She goes down to G below the stave, the same note as the bottom string of the violin. This means that the total range of the part if two and half octaves – most unusual.’

The Glyndebourne podcast features a growing library of episodes that delve into the music and magic of some of the greatest operas ever written – listen to more episodes here.

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