Lyric Opera of Chicago

(Not Quite) Everything You Want to Know about Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito

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It’s exciting to “discover” an opera that isn’t often performed – especially by a composer as familiar as Mozart. Lyric audiences can do just that with La clemenza di Tito, a tour de force operatic docudrama about the Roman Emperor Titus. 

Has Lyric done Clemenza previously? Only in 1989. 

Why isn’t it done as often as Mozart’s greatest hits? There’s a limited supply of singers who can do it justice, not to mention a director and conductor who can reveal the work’s heart and soul through the maze of political intrigue – and make it resonant for a contemporary audience. Lyric’s headliners are tenor Matthew Polenzani/Tito, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato/Sesto, and soprano Amanda Majeski/Vitellia. Sir Andrew Davis conducts Sir David McVicar’s production. 

What makes Tito a worthy subject for an opera? His character is complex and fascinating – a strong leader who must decide whether to punish or forgive the woman he loves and his best friend for plotting to assassinate him. “The depth of Tito’s love and compassion is tremendous, but it also brings into sharp relief the depth of his loneliness,” says Polenzani, for whom it’s a role debut. Plus, “there is so much sublime music in this opera!” 

Why would Tito’s best friend want to kill him? “Sesto is blinded by passion, completely torn between loyalty to the friend and ruler he loves and the woman he loves,” says DiDonato of the trouser role originally written for castrato, now virtually always sung by a woman. “Sesto is unsurpassed in Mozart’s offerings for the mezzo – I don’t think he wrote a single extraneous note for him.” 

What’s Vitellia’s problem? “She goes to extremes in every way,” says Majeski.“She’s vindictive, jealous, angry, feisty, but also quite remorseful and sensitive. She feels emotion strongly and sincerely, whether she’s rational or not. Vitellia requires singing at the extremes of her range, spinning out both long legato lines and fiery coloratura.” 

And the backstory? “Tito’s father was the victor in a civil war and killed Vitellia’s father, the former emperor, so he has what once belonged to her family,” says McVicar. “In Roman society, as a woman, she can’t actually hold the reins of power, but if she can marry him she’ll get what she feels is rightfully hers. In her relationship with Sesto, you have two people with very negative energies feeding off each other and setting out to do things that in any normal circumstance they wouldn’t contemplate doing.” 

What’s the takeaway? “How to be in a position of power and hold on to your humanity,” says McVicar. “It’s a very mature piece in its storytelling, its composition, and what it’s looking at – the way people can behave when they want power.”

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Lyric Opera presentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito generously made possible by Julie and Roger Baskes, The Negaunee Foundation, and Roberta L. and Robert J. Washlow.

Photos by Dario Acosta and Sheila Rock, courtesy of Virgin Classics.