While Mozart’s penultimate opera La Clemenza di Tito K. 621, (The Mercy of Titus) is often described in terms of its utilitarian genesis and dramatic shortcomings, on Saturday night Emmanuel Music simply, and powerfully, relied upon Mozart’s music. Their concert setting at Emmanuel Church sold a work that is often a tough sale for contemporary audiences.
Composed for the coronation of the Hapsburg emperor Leopold II amidst a flurry of other projects (including Die Zauberflöte and the Requiem), and using a libretto already close to 60 years old and previously set by dozens of other composers when Mozart received his commission, Tito was composed quickly and rehearsed even more quickly. Modern research is only now beginning to dispel the notion of this work as hurried, half-hearted, easy money for its composer. Librettist Metastasio was popular in his day, but by Tito’s 1791 premier, opera seria conventions such as relentless alternation between aria and dry recitative, circuitous plots and de rigueur happy endings were already beginning to show their age, even with textual additions from poet Caterino Mazzola.
La Clemenza di Tito centers around the Roman emperor Tito, his friend Sesto, and Vitellia, daughter of the deposed previous emperor with her eyes on the throne. Tito intends to marry Servilia, Sesto’s sister and already very much in mutual love with Sesto’s friend, Annio. Sesto is loyal to his monarch yet enamored with Vitellia, and when the outraged Vitellia orders Sesto to assassinate Tito, his passion overcomes his politics. When Tito learns of Annio and Servilia’s love for one another, he foregoes his imperial wishes and decides to take Vitellia as his empress. Unfortunately Vitellia has already sent Sesto on his murderous way. Tito survives Sesto’s attack, Sesto is sentenced to death, and in the story’s most climactic yet incredulous plot point, Tito pardons Sesto for his crime. All ends well with a celebration of the ruler’s magnanimity. The titular “mercy” must have seemed more like naiveté by the time Mozart started work.
Emmanuel Music was sophisticated enough not to attempt to rehabilitate Mozart’s work by imposing present-day dramatic values or use its lack of realism as an excuse for preciosity or post-modern irony. Instead, the six vocalists, chorus and orchestra under the direction of Ryan Turner merely applied musicianship and sincerity to Mozart’s score. Diehard purists may not appreciate replacing the copious amounts of dry recitative (composed not by Mozart but by his pupil Süssmayr) with a narrator, but Susan Larson summed up the connecting dialog concisely, if occasionally hamming it a bit. The narration provided enough literary context to frame all the lyrical, colorfully orchestrated arias, ensembles, and choruses.
Starting with an appropriately regal Overture, Turner’s tempi and direction suited Mozart’s elegantly passionate gestures and clear sense of melodic line. Rather than historically influenced transparency, Turner emphasized massed effects: for example, in the brief Act I March and the warm strings introducing Annio and Servilia’s duet. While overpowering the singers at a few points and despite some unsteady intonation in the woodwinds and brass, the Emmanuel Orchestra provided sensitive support to the principals.
Mezzo Krista River played the torn Sesto without overwhelming the music or the poetry. Mozart’s famous aria “Parto, Ma Tu Ben Mio” (I Go, But My Dearest) was sung sweetly and plaintively, without histrionics but with telling emphasis on the line “Sarò qual più ti piace” (I’ll be what you want) and a beautifully floated piano on “Guardami” (Look at me). Unfortunately Mozart’s cascading clarinet obbligato, written for his friend the virtuoso Anton Stadler, was rushed, with plunging phrase endings at odds with River’s mood.
Deborah van Renterghem’s interpretation of Vitellia may have struck some listeners as too reserved, but her cool soprano illustrated the character’s utter self-absorption and steely determination. Despite some strain in the lower register, “Deh, Se Piacer Mi Vuoi” (If You Wish to Please Me) made for confident manipulation. Her advice to Sesto, “Taci forsennato, deh, non ti palesar (Be silent, do not give yourself away) at the end of Act I was delivered with icy calculation, and her accompanied recitative and lamenting aria in Act II expressed regret without cloying self-pity.
The smaller roles of Annio and Servilia provide Tito’s most simply beautiful moments, for example the erotic duet “Ah, Perdona Al Primo Affetto” (Forgive My Former Love). Pamela Dellal’s mezzo conveyed masculine power and androgynous sensitivity as Annio, and her fluid upper register made a compelling argument for pardoning Sesto in “Tu Fosti Tradito” (You Were Betrayed). Soprano Susan Consoli portrayed Servilia with a youthful sheen; and as the Praetorian commander Publio, baritone Aaron Engebreth sang the smallest role dutifully. Bright, balanced singing by the Emmanuel Chorus filled out the cast, while highlighting Mozart’s knack for hair-trigger harmonic twists as Rome burned in the Act I finale.
The role of Tito was cast for the then-novel tenor voice (given the prominence of castrati in heroic roles, even at Mozart’s time, when the idea of casting a tenor as this heroic, almost superhuman character was a somewhat novel idea), and given the character’s unbelievable level of patience, can seem more like an angelic presence than a flesh-and-blood character. William Hite’s burnished tone added a touch of humanity to the role, with a prominent vibrato betraying the burden of power in “Del Più Sublime Soglio” (The Most Splendid Throne). Yet for the most part Hite’s smooth, Italianate lyricism, best heard in “Ah No, Sventurato” (No, Unfortunate) and Tito’s emotional soliloquies, fit Tito’s wholly elevated standing.
Believability is a stretch from the outset of this work. Joseph Kerman and Charles Rosen’s criticism notwithstanding, strong emotions set to great music and played well were more than enough on Saturday night. It may have been “more music than drama,” but who needs dramatic verisimilitude when the music and performance is this powerful?
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.