Travesti and other characters in La clemenza di Tito

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When thinking of castrato voices the first association is often with Georg Friedrich Händel’s (1685-1759) operas, such as Rinaldo (1711), Giulio Cesare (1724) and Alcina (1735). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756–1791) music, however, is not often associated with castrato singers a his most famous and mature operas such as Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Die Zauberflöte (1791) do not include one. In the late 18th century, a castrato voice was not so popular in opera anymore and appeared mostly in opera seria style compositions. During that time and the early 19th century, many castrati retired from opera but continued to teach, and thus had a great impact in the bel canto style of the 19th century opera.

La clemenza di Tito (1971) was composed for the coronation celebration of Leopold II of Bohemia. When composing La clemenza di Tito, Mozart received two demands about the cast from the customer: there had to be a famous prima donna and a world-class primo musico, in other words, a castrato. The way Mozart composed the roles for these celebrated voices is interesting – and shows a bit of the “Mozartian” rebellion. The obvious solution for the primo musico would have been the title role of Tito, and for the prima donna the role of beautifully high Vitellia. Instead Tito is a strong tenor, the somewhat ambivalent Sesto is the celebrated castrato, and Vitellia is a darker soprano with both third octave flashes and rumble from the brustwerk (chest resonance).

In between genders

In this production of the opera, the director had an idea of an androgenic world. Sesto is a person who is not easily defined as only a man or a woman, but seems to be somewhere in between. The idea of androgenic people nowadays has the same appeal as the castrati did: they lacked some characteristic adult male gender signs such as beards, muscularity and the Adam’s apple, but they might have had breasts and other feminine body features.

Unlike one might think, castrato roles where often sung by women already at Mozart’s time if a castrato was not available. For example, after Mozart died, his wife Constanze took La clemenza di Tito on a tour, singing the role of Vitellia herself and her sister Aloysia singing the role of Sesto. We do not know exactly what a castrato voice sounds like, but we can imagine a combination between female height and male strength. When a castrato is replaced by a female mezzosoprano, there could easily be difficulties in casting, as Vitellia’s role requires a strong soprano voice. However, Mozart has composed La clemenza di Tito with such cleverness giving each singer their own space, that casting this opera should not be a problem.

The art of creating people

The way Mozart portrays the characters through the opera is simply fascinating. What would it say about the emperor, if the role of Tito was for a baritone or bass instead of a tenor? What does it mean for Vitellia’s and Sesto’s relationship that there are lower notes for the soprano to sing than for the mezzo? How would this relationship be different were the castrato replaced by a female voice?” Sesto’s music through the composition is incredibly beautiful, colorful and touching, while Vitellia is constantly jumping up and down and spitting rhythmical text patterns, and Tito in his solitude is singing more serious long lasting lines.

All the roles in La clemenza di Tito are demanding: Publio is a bass but quite a high one. Annio has low tessitura in ensembles, which requires a real mezzo, but at the same time her arias are surprisingly high. Servilia is a young and lovable character, but her voice needs to have heartbreaking depth and warmth in it. When composing all six roles as they are and still managing to make them doable – for example to opera students – Mozart shows his deep understanding of human voice and strong high-class professionalism. This understanding can only derive from a deep connection and relationship between the composer and his singers. Mozart wrote roles for certain singers, maybe not for the most famous ones, but for those he knew himself and liked to work with. As a result, he managed to create some of the most singable parts ever composed. Food for thought for all the composers out there.

Text: Minna-Leena Lahti

Opera behind the scenes blog features texts by students attending the Sibelius Academy 2,5 years Master's education. They approach the opera productions ahead by taking a look at the composers, the characters and their experiences before the approaching premieres.