A few months before his death, Mozart composed La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), an opera seria, a genre he had not gone in for since Idomeneo. Though much of the music he wrote for La Clemenza di Tito rates as some of his very best, the work was long overshadowed by his other great masterpieces. After Così fan tutte, with which chief conductor Ludovic Morlot rounded off the last La Monnaie season, he is now about to wield the baton in another Mozart opera. A conversation about the place of La Clemenza di Tito in Mozart’s oeuvre, about the moral implications of the subject and about the need for ever-new versions of repertoire pieces.
At the end of last season you conducted Così fan tutte and in October you are returning for La Clemenza di Tito. Does this say something about the place Mozart occupies in your life?
Mozart is indeed very much a part of my life! I am passionately fond of the music of the second half of the eighteenth century, Haydn’s symphonic music, for example, but when it comes to opera, Mozart takes pride of place. There are of course great differences in his lyrical oeuvre, but at the same time there are so many parallels between his operas and his instrumental music, whether symphonies or chamber music. You cannot really get to grips with his operas without knowing his instrumental music, and vice versa. When interpreting his instrumental music I also try to visualize characters for each of the themes, for each of the tonalities, the tempi… There are numerous links between all those genres. But Mozart was first and foremost a theatre man and so it is most definitely the operas that contain his greatest achievements.
Is the transition from Così fan tutte to La Clemenza di Tito a big one?
You can’t really compare the two. La Clemenza di Tito is often criticized because it is an opera seria, but that doesn’t make the work any less interesting. Perhaps La Clemenza di Tito is slightly less homogenous than the operas Mozart produced in association with Da Ponte, Così fan tutte being the apotheosis. This could be explained by the fact that several people worked on the text and on the music of La Clemenza di Tito – the libretto by Metastasio was adapted by Mazzolà and the recitatives were not written by Mozart himself. However, I do think this criticism of La Clemenza di Tito is unfounded because the music is magnificent. You can draw more parallels with Die Zauberflöte than with Così fan tutte, as for example we see in the two similar tonal extremities C major and E-flat, but also in a number of melodic and rhythmic elements which are the apotheosis of Mozart’s writing. La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte were composed in the same period, so of course there are parallels, but you find them even in his religious music. What I believe makes La Clemenza di Tito special is the vocal casting, which is quite unusual. The tenor has the lead role, which had never been the case before, and the structure of the opera also contains many innovations.
And yet Clemenza di Tito was long regarded as one of Mozart’s lesser works. What are your thoughts on that?
I definitely think that this score is up to Mozart’s usual standard. Admittedly, the harmonic development is less coherent and the succession of the numbers may lack the fluency of the Da Ponte trilogy, but each number is a little gem in its own right! In La Clemenza di Tito I see a melodic genius at work: the basset horn’s sublime accompaniment in Sesto’s aria and the brilliant overture are just a couple of examples…
The recitatives are often criticized too. We know that they were composed not by Mozart but probably by his pupil Süssmeyer. Are they really not on a par with Mozart’s other operas?
I am not shocked at all by these recitatives. They sound completely natural to me, even when I hear them out of context. Recitatives were composed in a fairly standardized way in that period. Many other composers set the same libretto to music and there are clear parallels between their recitatives and those of Mozart in La Clemenza di Tito. They may differ somewhat in terms of tonalities, but in principle they are on a par.
How did Mozart flesh out the characters?
In Tito we have one of Mozart’s finest characters. What humility, what beauty, what nobility! I love the wisdom with which he first distances himself from Berenice, then decides to marry Servilia but steps aside on learning that she in love with Annio and he continues in the same spirit right up to his final forgiveness of Sesto and Vitellia. Some regard this as weakness of character, but I think he’s the strongest person in this work and Mozart gives him some wonderful arias. Vitellia also proves to be a forceful character, but in a very different way from Tito: she never holds up a mirror to herself, never examines her innermost feelings, except in her last rondo. Until that point, her role is very direct, almost aggressive. Mozart takes a great interest in her, developing her part with great virtuosity – comparable with Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte – and giving her a powerful scenic presence from the very first scene. Sesto is rather more in the background. You feel a constant reserve in him, an inhibition because he doesn’t want to betray his feelings for the various characters – particularly Tito. He is a very sensitive character with great inner strength, but without Vitellia’s explosivity or virility. Compared to her he is more feminine, whereas she acts with masculine decisiveness and vigour: in a sense the male/female karma is reversed in this couple. Annio is another very interesting character, because of the timbre, because of the musical notation which is very expressive in its simplicity. Musically his beloved Servilia is portrayed with great purity with, for instance, a gem of a love duet. On a musical level, the prefect Publio is probably the least interesting character or at any rate the most traditional, but he is of course key to the story. Mozart gives him less lyrical beauty and his position as a strict upholder of the law finds a parallel in the traditional musical form of his role. You could see him as a sort of Don Alfonso, a ‘link person’ with a noble reputation who is increasingly beset by circumstances…
And what do these characters have to tell us today?
The message of La Clemenza di Tito goes much further than the conscience of a political leader. It could even be seen in the context of the father of a family, or of anyone in a position of power. I think that message is very topical, however difficult it may be to follow: steer clear of difficult events and always be noble-minded! I identify very strongly with this philosophy. Forgiveness is not only important because of the effect it has on those around you, but it is also a victory in the search for oneself.
The previous production of this opera is stamped on the memory of many. Do you see this as a difficulty?
We are not looking to make people forget the Herrmann production at La Monnaie, but to add something new to the interpretation of Mozart. Just because you present a new reading of a work or want to shed new light on it doesn’t mean you reject all the previous readings or want to obliterate all memories of past productions. A politically-charged work like Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito must be part of the current La Monnaie season whose dominant theme is revolt and rebellion. I think that there is room for a new reading from a modern-day perspective. There are any number of productions of Così fan tutte, and some of them are very beautiful, but that doesn’t mean we should leave it at that and not take any more risks. I have seen many productions of Così fan tutte which I thought were good, but that didn’t deter me from tackling a new production with Michael Haneke. One could also come up with totally different interpretations of Pelléas et Mélisande which I conducted at La Monnaie last season. And it not a problem if one recognizes the same points in different productions of the same work: the fact is that we follow a score and you can’t just do whatever you like with it. But on the other hand it is not hard to see that those messages can be read in a very different way today compared to thirty years ago. What matters is that we continue to interpret a work. The more variety the better!
Recorded by Reinder Pols