Emmanuel Music does full justice to Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”
La Clemenza di Tito is the least performed and most difficult to execute of Mozart’s mature operas. Not only does the score call for a castrato (taken by a mezzo-soprano or countertenor today) prima donna with both extraordinary fire and range, the serious work lacks Mozart’s usual light touch.
To complicate matters, La Clemenza di Tito is not pure Mozart; the recitatives between numbers were written by Mozart’s student Franz Süssmayr (who also handed us the version of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor best known today).
Emmanuel Music closed its season with La Clemenza in a single performance presented Saturday night. In this version, the recitatives are excised, replaced by a narration so that the opera almost feels like an oratorio. Still, even without stage trappings, this rewarding concert performance provided fine advocacy, making the case that that La Clemenza di Tito should be mounted more frequently than it is.
Though the opera’s archaic opera seria form is often blamed for making La Clemenza less approachable, the libretto is, in some ways, dramatically superior to other Mozart operas of the period with the internal and external conflicts of ancient Rome sharply drawn and fully explored.
Vitellia, vengeful and beautiful, uses Sesto’s love for her to make an assassination attempt on Emperor Tito, his friend and liege. In the first act, it is Sesto’s torments that dominate. In Act Two, Vitellia’s awakening conscience and Tito’s wrestling between justice and clemency join to become the three central conflicts. All is resolved in the end when Tito pardons all the wrongdoers.
If there is any weakness in the opera’s characterizations, it is with the central protagonist Tito. It is difficult to imagine a ruler so inclined towards mercy toward his enemies, and the opera was written with monarchial propaganda purposes in mind. It is therefore a great triumph on the part of Ryan Turner’s conducting and tenor William Hite’s singing that this Tito comes across as a genuine, fully rounded character.
Part of it is due to Hite’s careful differentiation between Tito’s public persona and his private thoughts, singing the former with restrained elegance and the latter with a fuller, franker tone. Though Hite’s tone is not rich, he sings with genuine Mozartian style and phrasing. Part of the characterization also comes also from Turner’s careful handling of Mozart’s often stunning harmonies, especially in Tito’s first, meditative accompanied recitative. Here is a man who is truly conflicted about his personal feelings and the demands of his crown.
Krista River’s silvery mezzo felt a bit lightweight at times for Sesto, especially in her declamatory recitative in the act one finale. Dramatically, however River was deeply satisfying, and her internalization of Sesto’s torments fascinating to watch.
Deborah van Renterghem’s Vitellia was a true femme fatale, and her soprano opened up in the first act, revealing a full, warm tone over an impressive range. However, there was a lack of specificity and command in her singing; the variety of mood necessary for Vitellia’s crucial (and fiendishly difficult) final aria Non piu di fiori could have been sharply drawn.
Pamela Dellal and Susan Consoli excelled in the smaller roles of Annio and Servilia. Dellal’s mezzo soared thrillingly on top, and she had excellent command of the phrasing in the music. Servilia has only one solo, but Consoli tackled it with a light, clear soprano.
Aaron Engebreth brought a rich baritone to the role of Publio, and Susan Larson’s superb narration often conveyed the passionate sublimity of an oratorio. Though a concert performance, Emmanual Church proved an ideal backdrop for the music, with Turner eliciting the necessary pomp and bombast from the orchestra for the public scenes.
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