Photos: Theatre Ulm
An open stage. Dark, desolate, immersed in the blood-red light. In the middle stands a man. Dead bodies lying scattered around him. His clothes and his sword point to one from the military and his posture reveals his aristocratic origin. Only a wolf mask covers his face. It is a war scene- that of a blood-soaked victory. Curtain falls, and the music starts. Thus, begins the premiere of the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart "La Clemenza di Tito" at the theatre in Ulm, Germany.
Background The first performance of the last opera by W. A. Mozart "La Clemenza di Tito" took place on September 6th, 1791 at the Prague State Theater culminating coronation festivities of the Emperor Leopold II to the King of Bohemia. Prague Impresario Domenico Guardasoni did not have much trouble to find a suitable material for the Coronation Opera. The story of the Roman Emperor Tito Vespasiano an “ideal” ruler adapted in Libretto by Pietro Metastasio's in 1734 was set to music more than 40 times and appeared to be the most appropriate for such an occasion. The choice of composer, however, posed a challenge. Antonio Salieri, who was initially selected cancelled short term and precisely his opponent Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was now commissioned with the composition. Mozart appointed Saxon court poet Caterino Mazzolà to be in charge of the libretto and produced the score in very short time and under high pressure.
Libretto and music The researchers attempt to define "Tito" not only as Opera Seria but as Opera Vera - a true Opera. Mozart himself called his work "Opera Seria in due atti ridotta à vera opera". The possible explanation can be found in political and social events developing during this time in Europe marked by Napoleonic war, post-revolutionary incantations and the emergence of new political alliances. Another explanation might lie in an immediate effect of the libretto, in which, according to Voltaire, not the aria, but monologue builds the reflecting resting-pole of the story. From Mazzolà revised and streamlined text, a psychologically transparent and highly individual music, plentiful of recitatives and virtuoso arias as well as employing for those times most modern instrument clarinet, gave the work an untypical for the opera seria, innovative character. In numerous ensembles, the Emperor was forced to sing together with others thus abandoning his divine status. Thus, it is no wonder that the Leopold´s wife Maria Ludovica of Spain acrimoniously called Mozart´s operaas "Una porcheria tedesca" ("a German swinishness").
Story The story revolves around love, friendship, jealousy, intrigue, betrayal and revenge and can be compared with a court crime novel. The characters’ pentagon includes Emperor Tito, the conqueror of Jerusalem, Vitellia, the daughter of the deposed Emperor Vespasian, her lover Sesto, Emperors‘ best friend, Sesto´s sister Servillia and her beloved Annius. Publio, the Captain of the Praetorian Guard and Tito protector, remains outside and serves as a bearer of good and bad news, as well as Emperor's good-natured counsellor. Sesto is tempted by seductive Vitellia to assassinate an Emperor who, due to the political reasons is forced to renounce his love for the Jewish Princess Berenice and refuses to marry her. His choice falls on Sestos´s sister Servillia, who in turn, loves Annio, Sesto's best friend. She reveals to the Emperor her love for Annio and appeals to his mercy. Tito generously grants her the freedom and, at last, sets out to take Vitellia to become his wife and Empress. Learning of Tito´s decision, Vitellia desperately attempts to stop Sesto. It is but already too late. Rome is covered with flames and Tito is declared dead. Sesto is arrested, brought into court, accused of murder and sentenced to public execution. Emperor, who refuses to believe in the betrayal of his dear friend, offers Sesto once again an opportunity to prove his innocence. Sesto, however, remains firm and declares himself as the one and only guilty. In frantic attempt to avoid the execution of Sesto Vitellia confesses to Tito her conspiracy leadership involvement. Tito displays himself relieved and gracious. He forgives the two and is frenetically celebrated by his folk as a kind and gracious ruler.
Staging The deciphering of this both highly philosophical and psychologically sophisticated plot presents a challenge for any stage director. In Ulm, it was Nilufar K. Münzing who was entrusted with its scenic realization and made her debut as opera stage director. Münzing understood the straightforwardness and complicity of the drama and presented visually clearly drawn, although from the point of personal individualization quite conventional staging. An accumulation of symbols and symbolic props, various allegorical projections, often statically acting singers, as well as a series of private emotional outbursts (noises) interrupted the action and had rather disturbing, then beneficial effect. Nevertheless, there were also some interesting episodes, such as the scene like Tito´s decree signing scene sitting at the table and surrounded by his obedient servants. The scene looked as a parody of Donald Trump's decree signing activities and involuntarily gave the scene an edgy political pointé, of which this staging could have surely bear more.
Stage and costumes The stage design by Britta Lammers impressed by large spaces, with several projection surfaces and structural clarity. Artful light effects created an atmosphere that reflected the story and inner dispositions of the characters. The costumes by Christiane Becker were well made and gave the protagonist elegance, simplicity without being overloaded or over stylized.
Ensemble The ensemble presented a well-coached team with perfectly blending voices and the one, that seemingly had a lot of fun on stage. Garrie Davislim in the leading role of Tito seemed initially bit tense and sang with a strong, compelling voice. In the course of the evening, he quickly gained confidence and inner calmness. His aria "Se all 'impero, amici Dei!" was sung excellently and marked musically as well from acting side the highlight of the evening. The soprano Tatjana Charalgina as Vitellia sang with a beautiful lyric but dramatically colored voice. This role seemed to fit her vocal and acting skills perfectly, and her Italian pronunciation is quite impressive. The final aria “Non più di fiori” presented a further musical highlight of the evening. House mezzo-soprano I Chiao Shi made her debut as a Sesto and offered a beautiful, full-sounding, if although at the top slightly broad voice. This challenging role will inevitably become the parade one for the singer, for she mastered it with ease, authentically acting posing a great stage presence. Sesto's faithful companion was sung by mezzo-soprano Christianne Bélanger who pleased with a clear, beautifully sounding voice. She also performed authentically and sang very musically. She and I Chiao Shi seemed to build a good team and had much fun together. Maria Rosendorfsky as elflike Servilia has a loveable lyric voice, which she appeared to hold back that evening, thus having some acoustic difficulties. Martin Gäbler as Publio acted and sung sovereign with a full-sounding, sonorous bass voice.
Orchestra and Choir Under the direction of First Kapellmeister Joongbae Jee, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the City of Ulm presented a well-balanced, homogenous sound with a beautifully played clarinet solo. Regrettably, Joongbae Jee´s interpretation, though singer-friendly, remained rather dull and more comfortable than exciting. The house Choir (chorus director Hendrik Haas) deserves special praise for its full-sounding and for its small size unexpectedly big sound.
Conclusion After the initial success and great popularity in the 19th century, in the 20th century "La Clemenza, the Tito" was performed much less frequently. The type of courtly-representative Opera Seria was regarded as outdated and no longer corresponded with the spirit of the time. The raised questions about the compatibility of the power and humanity and ambivalence of an absolute ruler towards punishment and mercy were not answered in the Ulm production. However, perhaps there is no right answer available? What remains is the feeling of having encountered an adult Mozart whose oeuvre would certainly be augmented by many more great works had he not died so early. No power of the world can protect a mortal, not even the emperor. The Emperor´s throne is left vacant amid ashes and destruction acting as gloomy foreboding: both, composer and king were dead within a year of the first performance.