DiDonato, Polenzani, and Majeski star in La Clemeza di Tito
by Tracy Galligher
Political intrigue, spurned overtures, murderous plots, and uncertain consequences–if it sounds like a page out of current primetime television listings, it’s just confirmation that human nature is as ever-constant today as it was in Mozart’s time.
The composer’s final operatic masterpiece, La clemenza di Tito, tells an intensely psychological story surrounding the Roman Emperor Titus, or Tito. Power-obsessed Vitellia, daughter of the recently-deposed emperor, is determined to have Tito as her husband–or have him murdered. When Tito chooses another as his empress, a seething Vitellia turns to Sesto, Tito’s best friend, who is fiercely consumed with lust for her. Seductive, desperate, and fixated, Vitellia convinces Sesto to assassinate the Emperor. When their plot fails and their ultimate betrayal is revealed, Tito grants Vitellia and Sesto clemency, showing that power and mercy may go hand in hand–a popular theme for works of art that were commissioned by royalty, as this one was for the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia.
If the opera centers on a single, overarching idea, director Sir David McVicar says that it’s “how to be in a position of power and hold on to your humanity. 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.” Making each character multidimensional and believable, he says, is key to its success. “If you refuse to accept the conventions of these characters and the way they’re often played, you find the strength and you find the interest.”
Lyric has assembled an internationally sought-after star cast and artistic team to produce this opera for the first time in 25 years. Tenor Matthew Polenzani, a Ryan Opera Center alumnus and a longtime favorite with Lyric Opera audiences (most recently triumphing in the title roles of Werther and The Tales of Hoffmann), makes his much-anticipated debut in the title role. “I think the biggest challenge is bringing the required depth and gravity to the character,” Polenzani says. “I often thought that even though the part was right for me vocally, I didn’t have the life experience to wrestle with the feelings and emotions that face Tito with any veracity. I’m at a place now in my life that I can imagine and understand better what Tito faces. The depth of his love and compassion is something I’m just now able to appreciate.”
Sir Andrew Davis, who leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra for this production, agrees with Polenzani. “The thing about Tito is if you don’t present him in the right way, he seems rather weak. But in fact he has a huge heart and a great propensity for forgiveness. You need an artist of real maturity to bring him off, and though Matthew’s still a relatively young man, he has the gravitas.”
Scheming against Tito as Vitellia is Ryan Opera Center alumna Amanda Majeski, who wowed Lyric audiences last season as Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. “Vitellia is a woman who goes to extremes in every way,” Majeski says, emphasizing the complex layers to the role. “She is vindictive, jealous, angry, feisty…but also quite remorseful and sensitive in the end. She feels emotion strongly and sincerely, whether she’s rational or not. Mozart is an expert at writing music to enhance the character, so a singer is required to sing at the extremes of her range, spinning out both long legato lines and fiery coloratura. I think portraying her honestly and allowing the music to speak for itself allows the audience to understand her humanity.”
“Vitellia’s problem with Tito is absolutely legitimate,” says McVicar. “It’s not about, ‘He doesn’t love me, he doesn’t choose me.’ Tito’s father Vespasian was the victor in a civil war and killed her father, the former Emperor Vitellius, so Tito has what once belonged to her family. 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. It’s a kind of vacuum of need. His need is for her–this incredible, erotic longing–and she has an emptiness inside her–a longing for power that Sesto can’t fill.”
“Sesto is one of the most tortured characters in opera,” says acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, whose return to Lyric Opera in this “pants” role is eagerly awaited by audiences. “There is a big discussion as to whether Sesto is weak or not, but I don’t think he’s weak at all: I think he’s blinded by passion, completely torn between loyalty to the friend and ruler he loves and the woman he loves. He most fully emerges in his second-act aria, ‘Deh per questo,’ because in earlier scenes he is more a puppet to his lust, infatuation, and love for Vitellia. But at this moment, he assumes responsibility for his actions and asks, most sincerely, for forgiveness. It is a pure masterpiece. It seems to me that Mozart had a special place in his heart for Sesto; I don’t think he wrote a single extraneous note for him.”
The 35-year-old Mozart was just months away from his death when he was commissioned to write Clemenza in July 1791. Mozart’s last five extraordinary years had produced The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790), and nearly all of The Magic Flute, which was written concurrently with Clemenza and premiered just after it. For this opera, he turned to the opera seria style, identified by its noble theme and drawing from Baroque-era musical conventions. The libretto by Pietro Metastasio had already been set by nearly 40 composers and was tweaked by court poet Caterino Mazzolà before Mozart began his writing. It would premiere in September.
“There is so much sublime music in this opera–as with all of Mozart’s operas,” says Polenzani. By turns ethereally beautiful and filled with passionate intensity, it features some of Mozart’s most magnificent choral work.
David McVicar adds, “You can’t help but think about what operas Mozart could have gone on to write if he had lived, because this piece is a model. Mozart has taken an old text, mashed it up, and produced something that strikes me as completely modern with its psychological complexity and veracity. Instead of being Baroque relics, these characters are completely convincing modern people.”
The production, which was conceived and designed by McVicar and is directed by his associate Marie Lambert (who remounted his Meistersinger at Lyric last season), premiered at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, where The Telegraph praised the direction for “adding psychological complexity and probing the Enlightenment’s darker side.” Set at the moment the 18th century becomes the 19th, McVicar says, “The scenery and lighting are very influenced by the works of [French Neoclassical painter] Jacques-Louis David. It’s got a huge staircase, which is an image of power. Tito spends a lot of time on the staircase, separate–isolated and shielded by his Praetorian guard. We emphasize his loneliness and how difficult it is for him to make contact with other human beings. That’s why his relationship with Sesto is so vital to him.”
For opera lovers, this production offers the chance to enjoy a rarely-performed gem of the repertoire. DiDonato, who returns to Clemenza after a number of years, can’t wait. “The biggest strength, aside from the glorious music, is its pure humanity. Sesto is blinded by love. Vitellia is blinded by power. Tito is the one who stands up against his pain and betrayal, to do what is right. Isn’t it amazing that we can still learn – more than 200 years later – from this masterpiece?”