Lyric Opera

So many myths surround the last year of Mozart’s life (1791) that we will never be able to completely separate fact from fiction. Yet many of these myths helped to ensure more than a century and a half of neglect of La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), a work overflowing with the mature Mozart’s very best, a work completed and premiered less than three months before his death at the height of his creative genius.

La clemenza di Tito was not always so neglected. The city of Prague, which had commissioned Don Giovanni and had ensured a success for The Marriage of Figaro, engaged Mozart as its second choice to set the work for the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia (Salieri had been asked but was unavailable). On its premiere it was poorly received, but the reasons for this appear to have had more to do with inadequate rehearsal time and the reportedly horrendous singing of two of the principals than with the subject matter or its musical treatment, as is usually presumed. Mozart did not live to see the work’s success, which was considerable all over Europe for nearly half a century–15 editions were published during these years.

The opera fell into virtual disuse during the Romantic era. An increasingly low regard for the work began with hack biographers and critics and was canonized by Wagner. The objections had to do with the speediness of its composition (18 days, according to legend, although the evidence does not support this), and with what critics perceived as Mozart’s lack of interest in the subject matter (in fact, he had been contemplating setting the libretto for two years). Furthermore, to speed things up the recitatives were written by a student of Mozart’s, though probably not Sussmayr, as is often presumed, given Mozart’s low opinion of his talent. Because the form was the older opera seria–which Mozart had not explored since Idomeneo and which lacked the wit and ensembling of his popular stage works–critics assumed that he didn’t care for the form. They also assumed that he was already sick and uninspired while working on La clemenza di Tito, though The Magic Flute and the unfinished Requiem are from the same time and are seen as being among Mozart’s most inspired works.

Whatever the reasons for the neglect, the music makes it clear that a real gem was carelessly tossed aside. The advent of a modern performing edition (the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) and the efforts of the late French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have gradually restored some of the opera’s reputation. Unfortunately, the performances have often been stodgy and done in a thoroughly Romantic style by singers who were unable to convey the lyricism of Mozart’s flowing melodic line.

Lyric Opera has done much with its present premiere production to help put to rest the idea that La clemenza di Tito is merely a museum piece. Not that Lyric’s production is “authentic” in any sense of that word: the singers are thoroughly 19th-century in their singing style, the orchestra is large and modern, the sets are contemporary in the worst sense of the word, and the action is often lifeless. Even so, the supreme and sublime genius of Mozart can be heard.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos took the male role of Sesto, which Mozart originally intended for a tenor. He was asked to score it for castrato soprano, which he did, but it became a female trouser role in a production less than three years after his death, with his own sister-in-law singing it. There is not much acting to the part, as Sesto is so hopelessly in love with Vitellia that he allows himself to be shamelessly used by her and even sets out to murder his best friend at her request. Troyanos is always a superb actress, and she does suggest a certain independence from Vitellia by the end of the opera.

Though her voice is too heavy for Mozart’s fluid vocal lines, Troyanos projected extremely well and maintained beautiful color and full timbre throughout the evening. Particularly impressive was her treatment of the opera’s many tortuous runs and trills; she didn’t always make them easily, but she sang with all her heart and gave a stirring performance.

Soprano Carol Vaness made Vitella deliciously evil and scheming. The range of the part is one of Mozart’s most fiendishly difficult–the singer must go from very pronounced low notes to the coloratura register, often in a single bound. Vaness’s voice is also heavy for Mozart, but she sang with great style and color, was vocally strong, and projected well in most of the difficult passages–although she lost power with her lower notes in the climax of the opera, where her acting also got a bit hammy.

The role of emperor Tito, a rather wooden character based more on Roman mythology than history, was sung by the Don Ottavio of last year’s Don Giovanni, Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh. Though his timbre is rather gruff, he did a credible job and was always audible. But he was in way over his head tehnically and had considerable trouble with the role’s runs. He also glossed over difficult vocal trills, a wise decision if you know you can’t make it–but if you can’t, why would you sing Mozart?

The “other lovers,” Annio and Servilia, were sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in another trouser role and soprano Susan Foster. Graham was making her Lyric debut, and both her singing and acting were superb. Foster had an annoyingly tight, shrill vibrato–luckily, the only quarter-tone wobbler of the production. Also quite unimpressive was bass Mark S. Doss (Publio), who not only had trouble maintaining specific pitches but had little in the way of projection or consistent sound.

Most of the credit for the freshness of this production clearly goes to British conductor Andrew Davis, who, despite having a large orchestra, was able to approximate a chamber-orchestra feel and a clear Mozartian sense of line, style, and texture. He was also able to evoke extraordinarily transparent playing from the orchestra that was rarely heavy or stodgy–and that was much more effective than most other attempts at Mozart conducting heard at Lyric. He kept things moving, and his phrasing and balancing were impeccable. However, the Lyric Opera Chorus was a considerable disappointment; it sounded unbalanced and the singers weren’t enunciating their consonants at the same time.

The only instrumental disappointment was the marring of the gorgeous clarinet-Sesto aria, “Parto, ma tu ben mio,” (“I leave, but as for you, my love”). Troyanos sang magnificently, but she was answered by a poorly reconstructed basset clarinet, which has an additional range of four notes on the bottom end, that did not match her pitch. The playing was hopelessly flat and uninspired, and the instrument did not project well at all–it was never intended for such a huge opera house, but then neither was Mozart.

The sets for this La clemenza di Tito, which were borrowed from the Grand Theatre de Geneve, were a series of tacky geometric shapes–complete with visible wrinkles–set up to resemble ancient Rome under construction. The flat buildings looked as though they had been outlined in black Magic Marker, the scaffolding as though it had been colored in brown crayon. There were falling backdrops and floating scenery that moved so awkwardly and conspicuously that it was hard to believe that they were working the way they were supposed to. The costumes were Roman in conception–rather than Roman via 18th-century powdered wigs, etc–which makes sense.

It is difficult for us to be objective about the ultimate worth of La clemenza di Tito because it’s simply too new to us. But future generations who grow up with it alongside Mozart’s other great operas and last works must be the final judges of its merit. I should think they would regard its century and a half of disuse with disbelief.