14 September 2017

Opera for Inclement Times: La clemenza di Tito

Mozart's last opera, reassembled for today's world

Opera is—it has to be!—an acquired taste: once you start acquiring it, you'll notice that the thing will find a way of manifesting itself using any means to grab your attention and distract you away from your regular time-wasting activities.

Case in point: a month ago, when I was busy feeling flattened by the despair fed by news of the Charlottesville's tragedy and the subsequent offensive remarks of the president, I came upon a Los Angeles Times opera article that started mentioning Charlottesville in a review of a show taking place in Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace (“Peter Sellars turns Mozart's last opera into a modern message of humanity in the face of terror” by Mark Swed). What did Mozart's lesser known opera have to do with that weekend's violent rally of hate?  According to the L.A. Times critic, it “had ostensibly nothing — but in fact had everything — to do with Charlottesville.”

I got curious and became curiouser... I found the opera is available to watch for free (alas, sans subtitles), and was rapidly captured by the creativity of the producer/director Peter Sellars, and the conductor, the increasingly and (now I know) deservingly famous Teodor Currentzis. The contemporary, simple and disturbing imagery and the 2.25-centuries old musical score looked all very right and beautiful, extremely dramatic and impossibly relevant.  It helped that I didn't know about the existence of that opera, Mozart's last. All was new!

Imagery was new. The overture's music serves as the background for a movement of people in the curtainless stage: they are refugees running away from unsaid dangers, clearly crossing into a forbidden land, their faces showing fear and hope.  They are promptly stopped by heavily armed soldiers and herded at gunpoint behind a fence.  The refugees are a diverse group of people, but many are dressed as today's Levantine migrants.

Emperor Tito was new: morphed from the original Roman emperor into a sort of benevolent strong man, inspired by Nelson Mandela, he personally welcomes the refugees, and selects two siblings, Sesto and Servilia, to be under the personal protection of Vitellia and Nannio, respectively: the two refugees become part of Tito's inner circle.

Jump to Act I of the opera: Sesto and Vitellia are now in love with each other, but they are both very tortured characters.  Vitellia is full of rancor against Tito, because he took the political power from her father, and now Tito doesn't even want to marry her, because he is in love with Berenice, a Palestinian queen.  Vitellia encourages Sesto to organize a terrorist attack against the Capitolium and Tito. Sesto is a bitter and confused man who will do anything for un dolce sguardo almeno (at least one sweet glance) from Vitellia, but at the same time he admires Tito and respects the love that the people have for him.

In operatic dramas, it's common to mix love stories with difficult social conventions or political power struggles. Tragedy usually strikes and people die or get killed in situations that could have been avoided. Misunderstandings, stubbornness, bad timing are the factors in play in this opera. Tito is not allowed to marry the foreigner Berenice, and sends her back to Palestine, so he can select a Roman wife as politics requires. Hoping to be the lucky one, Vitellia requests Sesto to stop the planned attack, just in case. But Tito announces that Servilia (Sesto's sister) will be his wife, which again infuriates Vitellia, who asks Sesto to go ahead with the terrorist plan.

There are many beautiful and dramatic scenes in this opera. The rendition of the No. 9 Aria (Parto, ma tu ben mio—I leave, my beloved, often known as “Parto, parto”), sang by Sesto when leaving to consummate the attack, is truly remarkable and unforgettable. More than an aria, it is a duo of Sesto's voice and the basset horn (a large clarinet), with the orchestra providing only the slightest accompaniment; it's also a carefully choreographed soft dance between Sesto and the clarinetist, who is playing in the stage, a sort of full-sized faun that gets closer and closer, in space and timing, to the tortured Sesto, always looking at him and moving along, standing, lying down, bending, sharing his every pain. The aria lasts almost twelve minutes that completely capture the attention of the viewer. Beauty at all levels. Strong, dramatic beauty that hurts and lifts the soul.

The reader will now allow this writer to turn his accented attention to the medium: opera in film (i.e. the electronic filmless recording of motion pictures: not sure what it is called now). Watching a live opera is beautiful, but many of us small-town folk rarely have the opportunity, not to mention the money, to have that experience for more than a few occasions in a lifetime. The development of electronics and communication—high definition video, multichannel audio, worldwide audiences, readily available librettos and reviews—has made opera and almost everything else available to many people.  Mix that powerful and ever improving infrastructure with century-old cinematic language and techniques, stir sensibly into the two-centuries old music, the voices, the acting, and you have a different kind of beauty, a new way of enjoying and spreading the hard work of famous composers and quite (unfairly) lesser known librettists that created opera, genre that many consider the pinnacle of beauty and complexity in the performing arts. Besides the technical rendition which depends on the viewer's equipment (computer, phone, large screen, audio system and what not), what does opera-in-film bring that is different? Let's call it proximity.  Like in cinema, close-ups show the acting dimension of the opera artists in a new light, in many new lights. Multiple cameras also allow multiple views, and possibly multiple feelings in the viewer. Even the choir members are put to task, acting all the time, with no room for side glances or distractions that high definition does not forgive.  The stage and live performances are still there, as it is the orchestra and the audience, who will enjoy the live unobstructed music, an irreplaceable experience reserved for the people at the theater. But they will not see every expression, every detail, every drop of sweat (there is a lot of that), that us video watchers have the luck (or not!) of seeing. The aria “Parto, parto” is an outstanding example of what film can add to the operatic experience. Does this new ecology of performance and delivery effect changes to the genre? Of course it does and will keep doing it. That, however, is another discussion that very learned writers are tackling.  (I just like opera and the fact that I can enjoy it whenever I want.)

Back to the drama. Do we still remember that Tito asked Servilia to be his wife, and how that filled Vitellia, again, with vengeful rage? Well, Servilia nicely declines the offer, and dares to tell Tito that she's in love with Annio.  Tito, compassionate and understanding, accepts that he cannot stand between so much love. Tito does care about every one of these people and is grateful that delicate and brave Servilia tell him the truth.

At this moment, and for the second time in the opera, director Peter Sellars and conductor Teodor Currentzis change gears or, most accurately, change the rules and sneak in, seamlessly, the Laudamus of Mozart's Great Mass. Sang as an aria by Servilia, the song (“We praise, we bless, we adore, we glorify you”) is addressed to Tito, for granting Servilia and Annio the right to pursue their love.  This, of course, is not commonly done: one just does not insert parts of one musical opus in the middle of another. Except when you are Sellars working with Currentzis working with Sellars and so on.  In this Clemenza, they have done that six times, including the closing scene, using three different Mozart compositions: the never finished Great Mass, the Adagio and Fugue, and the Masonic Funeral Music, all three written in C-minor, which I presume prevents the rejection of this daring musical transplant.

Tito still needs a wife, though, and opts, at last, for Vitellia, who is surprised and elated by the news… but immediately enters in panic because Sesto and the terrorist attack cannot be stopped any longer. She exits the stage howling in pain.

The orchestra then starts playing the Adagio.  On the stage, a group of five quiet and focused people work around a table preparing plastic-based bombs: packs of explosives, cell phones, wires, backpacks are being readied to attack Tito and his centers of power. An explosive suicidal vest is carefully outfitted to Sesto, along with a handgun: he will have the task of killing his friend Tito. With the ominous sounding adagio transitioning into the more decisive fugue, the five terrorists walk around the nearly empty stage, watching and being watched by Tito's guards.  Back and forth they go as the fugue progresses, increasing the tension: they look at their watches, they try to look normal. The fugue ends with all but Sesto having exited the stage, and the score and the plot get back to the Clemenza.

No need to keep describing the storyline. As the whole opera production is full of surprises, I will spare the reader from additional spoiling details. Suffice to say that the attack happens. In Act II, Tito's clemency and everyone else's demons will take center stage.

The intermezzo has not been wasted. After the terrorist attack, the refugees (members of the excellent musicAeterna Choir that Currentzis developed in Perm, Russia: they sure are good actors too!) are laying flowers, silently and slowly, at a makeshift street memorial, where candles and pictures of the fallen are disturbingly contemporary (cf. Charlottesville, Barcelona, Paris…).  The multiple cameras visit the faces of the refugees, full of pain and tears. The intermission softly transitions into the choir singing the Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy!”) from Mozart's mass. The solo part is sung by Annio. Choir and soprano are clearly heartbroken.

Sellars and Currentzis finish the production with all the actors extremely sad and all but Tito singing the Masonic Funeral Music, with these two verses of Jeremiah's Afflictions from the book of Lamentations, loosely translated as:
He filled me with bitterness and made me drunk with absinthe. (3:15)
A flash flood covered my head, and I thought: “I’m dead” (3:53-54)

The video of the opera ends with a close-up of the crying eyes of Sesto.

Domingo Martínez Castilla
* * *

Suggested search keywords: Mozart, La clemenza di Tito, Salzburg Festival, Peter Sellars, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, Opera in film

The performers

  • The orchestra is the MusicAeterna ensemble that Currentzis created in 2004, and is now part of the Perm Opera. It adds period instruments that may or may not be in the original scores.
  • The reknown MusicAeterna Choir is also part of the Perm Opera.
  • The cast is quite diverse, including the six principals, who are, alphabetically: Jeanine de Bique (soprano, Trinidad and Tobago), Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano, France), Christina Gansch (soprano, Austria), Golda Schultz (soprano, South Africa), Russell Thomas (tenor, U.S.A.), and Sir Willard Wentworth White (bass, Jamaica and the U.K.).  Yes, I am teasing the reader to discover who plays which part.

Main sources

Programme Detail. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. La clemenza di Tito (Information page at the Salzburger Festspiele website) 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito. Salzburger Festspiele 2017. (Opera program, 164 pp.) [Danke, Hanna!]
Yes, that is correct: 164 pages, containing all the usual stuff of an in-theatre opera program, and then quite some! Bilingual (German and English) versions. The program includes the full libretto, and the following three very good articles/essays:
  • Hans-Joachim Fritz: “Exhortation and Utopia.” This is a discussion of how La clemenza di Tito was conceived by Mozart and librettist Caterino Tomasso Mazzolà as a work of the enlightenment, and not just a paean to a magnanimous emperor, as it was originally written by poet Pietro Metastasio.
  • Simon P. Keefe: “Mozart and La clemenza di Tito in 1791.” The story of how this opera came to be, putting it in the context of Mozart's last year of life and work.  The opera was commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II in Prague.  Interestingly, the Prague people wanted Antonio Salieri to write the opera, but they were turned down by the busy Italian.
  • Peter Sellars: “Mozart & Mandela.” Let’s hope that this piece be made available along the opera itself, when it comes in video. It contains the producer's view of Mozart, of this opera, the historical Titus and our current world.  The final lines of the article read: “As we know from our own friends and families, people who can neither be fully seen nor be truly heard have no recourse other than violence to challenge an unequal and unjust status quo. / Nelson Mandela understood that truth and reconciliation each demand a public process, attention, and deep listening. Mozart shared that understanding.”

References and links

(Active as of September 14, 2017)



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