Aspen Music Fest: The musical surprises in Mozart’s ‘La clemenza di Tito’
Special to The Aspen Times
If You Go …
What: ‘La clemenza di Tito,’ presented by Aspen Opera Center
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Tuesday, Aug. 15 – Saturday, Aug. 19, 7 p.m.
How much: $25-$50
Fans of Mozart’s operas love to debate which is his best. The buzz among opera experts these days gravitates toward “La clemenza di Tito,” the final opera on the Aspen Opera Center’s calendar this summer. It opens today at the Wheeler Opera House.
For decades, “Tito” took a back seat. It’s different. It’s an opera seria — pure drama, with none of the comedic leavening in “Don Giovanni,” “Così fan tutte” or “Le nozze di Figaro.” It has only a few highlight-reel arias, so abundant in those operas, or, for that matter, “The Magic Flute.”
But some of Mozart’s most sublime music blooms from this beautifully crafted series of arias, duets, trios, ensembles and orchestral eruptions. After all, Mozart was on a roll in 1791, his final year, producing “Tito,” “Flute,” the clarinet concerto and the Requiem. Monuments all.
“It has some great orchestral writing,” said Jane Glover, the conductor for these Aspen performances. “The two marches rival the Triumphal March in (Verdi’s) ‘Aida.’”
Although Mozart was at the top of his game, his workload required some compromises. “Tito’s” musical numbers are relatively short for Mozart. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are more of them, and they sparkle with originality and aptness for the moment. It’s the recitatives, wherein a character sings the plot or sets up an aria, that are the downside.
To get “Tito” to the stage on time, Mozart only wrote four of the recitatives, the ones accompanied by orchestra. He farmed out the rest to Franz Xaver Süssmayr (the same composer who completed the Requiem, unfinished at Mozart’s death).
“Süssmayr is filling in the forms to tell the story and get through it,” Glover said. “But nobody wrote ‘recit’ like Mozart. The harmonic progressions are so sophisticated. There’s a nonchalant genius about it. It’s effortless.”
Glover, who will conduct from the harpsichord in this week’s performances, added, “One of the chief things I’ve been doing is to get the singers to inflect these recitatives like natural speech. I keep telling them, try to sing it less.”
Despite such challenges she does not regret this, her fifth opera assignment in Aspen. Her first, Cavalli’s early Baroque “Eliogabolo,” turned out to be one of the high points of opera here, and showed what glories little-known operas could deliver. She triumphed more recently with Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and two years ago with Mozart (“Così fan tutte”).
Her only previous experience with “Tito” anywhere was in Chicago 10 years ago. “Coming back to it is a joy,” she said, “even if it’s to a formula.”
Formulaic though their form may be on the surface, the arias deliver the Mozart magic. And not just the big ones —“Parto, parto,” and “Non più di fior,” plus heroic moments for the title character.
“All the arias start as if they’re going to be something else, as if they’re another accompanied recit,” she said. “You find the tempo of the aria quite a long way in. He keeps you guessing. There’s this sense of almost…”
Glover paused, and I suggested, “making it up?”
That feeling of improvisation, of course, is what keeps music fresh, even things heard many times before. That so much of the inspired music in “Tito” has not appeared on countless CDs is one reason why this opera feels so invigorating, even to jaded opera-goers.
With only six characters, the plot can get complicated. Who loves whom and who persuades whom to plot against the emperor Tito may be confusing to track, but Mozart’s music makes the most of the intrigue.
Musically and dramatically, the opera’s turning point revolves around one of Mozart’s own recitatives. Sesto, on his way to kill his friend the emperor, expresses his second thoughts brilliantly — “He has this Shakespearean dilemma,” Glover said — and that leads to a magnificent quintet in which everyone reacts to this attack on the emperor as Rome burns. End of Act I.
Tito ultimately pardons those who conspired against him to music only Mozart could have written, as personal as the countess’ moment of forgiveness in “Figaro” — only on a grander scale.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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