La Clemenza di Tito: a genealogy of texts

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Mozart’s 1791 opera La Clemenza di Tito was not the first great work to use Pietro Metastasio’s libretto; on the contrary, it was commissioned half a century earlier, for Antonio Caldara’s 1737 opera of the same name. Subsequently, the libretto was used by no fewer than forty-one composers before Mozart, and four after him. For Mozart’s opera, Metastasio’s text was heavily revised by Caterino Mazzolà (1745-1806), a Venetian poet and librettist active in Dresden and Vienna. Like most of the operas of the time, the original 1737 text had been written for a specific, different occasion. Mazzolà added stark distinctions of character, particularly for Sesto and Vitellia, elaborating aria text from the ends of Metastasio’s original recitativi. Vitellia’s Act Two aria “Non più di fiori” is one example of Mazzolà’s contributions to the depth and nuance of her character.

Metastasio’s text was based on a few details in The Lives of the Caesars, written by the ancient Roman historical commentator Suetonius. However, as always, its true context can be found not necessarily in history, but in the lives and experiences, the hopes and moral ideals of those in the time in which it is staged. The words must live with new meaning in every time, as the context changes with each iteration. The concepts of power, transgression, betrayal, and mercy are no less relevant now than they were in 1780 or ancient Rome, nor does the political dimension lose its forcefulness. The questions of the nature of true leadership and connection between individuals resonate just as strongly today as they ever did, and perhaps even now we may find new aspects to the opera that show us a way to engage with these concepts in new and meaningful ways.

Pietro Metastasio (born Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698-1782) was raised in the milieu of the Roman “Arcadian Academy” founded in the 1690s. According to John Rice, Metastasio thus “absorbed their precepts: that clarity should be valued over complexity, that subtle wit and delicate sensibility should be valued over extravagance and bombast, that literature and drama should give pleasure as they lead their audience toward virtue and reason.” This story, like his others, was thus influenced by French seventeenth- century moral philosophy – such as that of René Descartes (1596-1650) - and high drama of playwrights Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699); there are no comedic characters, the Aristotelian unities are observed; there is no deus ex machina (literally “god from the machine”, the ancient theatrical and narrative convention of a “divine intervention” at the end of the story, often to ensure a happy ending)--unless we count the virtue of the emperor Tito himself, which functions in a similar way. Indeed, in a context where whims of all-too-human and capricious (neo)classical gods have been replaced by the stark deities of the law itself and, in line with Enlightenment ideals, the moral perspective. In this story, the emperor’s right to decide who lives and dies takes the place of any mechanical contrivance, thus keeping the focus firmly on the earthly sphere and the internal moral struggle, the juxtaposed godlike responsibility and humanity of the ruler. Virtue and loyalty are mutable forces that shift with the understandings of the characters, and tragedy threatens at every moment, marred only by the foreshadowed “clemenza” mentioned in the opera’s title. Yet here, as in life, nothing is simple, and even mercy, in the wrong hands or mind, can be twisted beyond repair. 

Text: Isabella Shaw