- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito
Sylvain Cambreling’s not very aristocratic rendition of the overture of La clemenza di Tito should have been sufficient for me to realize that the conductor was underplaying Tito’s imperial condition. Instead, it took me a little longer to grasp that his musical interpretation suited Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann’s production and Christoph Prégardien’s portrayal of the title character perfectly.
Karl-Ernst Herrmann designed a white marble background on which the characters are occasionally reflected. This plain set remains the same throughout the opera, with the only eccentric addition being the short appearance in act 1 of a huge potatolike chariot, whose meaning admittedly escaped me. The plot unfolds in a timeless palace with no explicit references to the Roman Empire. In this aseptic environment, the characters are dressed eclectically: female characters wear twentieth-century ball gowns while male characters don Roman robes. All this plainness might seem as though the production team was wary to make bold choices with regard to the political interpretation of La clemenza. In doing so, [End Page 571] the directors reflected the ambiguous nature of this work. Indeed, Mozart’s last opera eludes straightforward political interpretation. Some see it as a warning to late eighteenth-century rulers against the abuse of power, whereas others perceive it as an homage paid to one of these rulers (Leopold II, who commissioned the work).
Nevertheless, two historical and literary references on stage suggest that they attempted their own, original reading of the work. The first reference is to Napoleon: Tito’s coat and hairstyle in act 1 reminded me of the French emperor in his final days, while in exile in St. Helena. The second reference occurs in Tito’s scene in act 2 when he ponders over what to do with his friend Sesto (who had just tried to murder him): we see a candle, a book, and a skull—a clear allusion to Hamlet’s monologue in the cemetery. Both references help to represent Tito as a tormented ruler, incapable of making up his mind and directly exerting power. Rather, his authority has been challenged and he struggles to recover it. In portraying Tito’s doubts by pairing him with Napoleon and Hamlet, however, the directors make his suffering akin to that of the rulers of all times. That downplays the significance of Tito’s intrinsically enlightened magnanimity. Thus, this La clemenza di Tito is more about the dilemmas faced by the powerful and less about political tensions in prerevolutionary Europe.
Apart from the depiction of Tito as neglected Napoleon and tormented Hamlet, two other moments were particularly revealing of the directors’ reading of his personality. Firstly, in act 2 Tito’s throne faces the back of the stage. This puts the emperor in a compromising situation, because he cannot be seen by anyone on stage or in the audience. The resulting impression is one of Tito as a shy person, unwilling to be seen or touched. Secondly, at the end of act 2, when Tito’s clemenza should take center stage, it is Sesto who occupies this area. When the curtain falls, Tito is relegated to one side, again facing the wall. His generosity of spirit, however, is meaningful only if it stems from his unquestionable imperial authority. If Tito is shown not as a merciful emperor but as a weak one, occupying a dark corner of the stage, the main point is missing.
The fact that Tito is sung by an exhausted Christoph Prégardien does not help to raise the profile of this character. Prégardien, of course, is a wonderful lieder singer. Listening to his...