‘Either take the empire from me or give me another heart’
Is the Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus ‘still among us’? Two thousand years after his death is his virtue still a guiding star, too good to be true? Two centuries after it was written can an opera about this magnanimous ruler still inspire any emotion other than mere interest on the part of music historians? And an opera seria to boot, the sort of work that was conceived during the Age of Baroque to glorify seigneurial grandeur and aristocratic superiority, depicting kings and emperors as they ought to be but rarely were and as they ought to be seen but never were.
Opera seria did not vanish with the age of absolutism. This anachronistic art form developed a chameleon-like ability to acquire multiple meanings and adapt itself to suit the most varied periods. In keeping with its original idea – or ideology – it upheld the interests of the state and was impersonal and strictly formalized, but with the passage of time it came to be seen as more critical of society, more subjective, chaotic and subversive, melding with Romanticism, psychoanalysis, pop and politics. Even Mozart was a part of this process. In 1789 – the year of the French Revolution, no less – he received a commission to write a new opera for Prague, where it was unveiled two years later, on 6 September 1791, within the framework of, and on the margins of, the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It was commissioned by the Bohemian Estates as contractual partners of the theatre’s director. For them, the choice of composer was a matter of the utmost indifference, whereas they attached the greatest importance to the eminence of the singers and the opulence of the sets: a case of timeless ignorance if ever there was one. Finally they opted for a libretto that was almost sixty years old: La clemenza di Tito by the late imperial court poet Pietro Metastasio. This paean to Titus’s goodness and clemency and to the victory of reason had already been set by Antonio Caldara, Johann Adolf Hasse, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Niccolò Jommelli and Baldassare Galuppi. But Mozart invited another court poet, the Dresden-based Caterino Mazzolà, to rework the now slightly antiquated libretto, describing the result in his work-list as an ‘Opera Seria in Due Atti – ridotta à vera opera’ (opera seria in two acts reduced to a true opera). By this he meant that the text had been made much tauter, the plot simplified and a number of arias turned into ensembles. Above all there was Mozart’s highly individualized and psychologically illuminating music. The opera’s subsequent success story is a curious one. It had come into the world as a coronation opera, but within only a few years it had left far behind it all the trappings of courtly convention and festive celebration, no longer holding up a mirror to princely mores but finding a niche for itself in the world of the bourgeoisie and in the emotional lives of a new generation that had taken ‘its Mozart’ to heart, including even the Mozart of ‘olden times’, whose music had been designed to pay homage to the Habsburgs. At all events, the poet Eduard Mörike knew La clemenza di Tito like the back of his hand, devoting a touching poem to Sesto’s Act II Rondo, which he prefaced with a musical and textual quotation from the opening bars of the aria: ‘Ah, once again in life, let your heart be open to me.’
The emperor who reconciles the warring factions among his people, bringing peace to his land and even pardoning his attacker, the unhappy Sesto: in this unerringly rational humanity the American director Peter Sellars sees the ultimate ideal that Europe holds up to the world, the most extreme expression of civilization and enlightenment. ‘How do we live together in an age of conflict?’ he asks. ‘How do you offer some healing gesture at a time when people are so angry?’ Sellars and the conductor Teodor Currentzis take up the story of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and develop it for their Salzburg production, reworking it yet again and opening up a new perspective on the composer’s ‘true opera’ in a sense that Mozart would have understood. After two millennia Titus continues to stand among us, and it would be unforgivable not to listen to what he has to say.