La Clemenza di Tito is something of a black sheep among Mozart’s late operas. It premiered just a few months before his untimely death, and so is a mature work, but it has not won the hearts of audiences in the way that the other late works have. This may be due, in part, to the haste with which it was written: just three weeks elapsed between Mozart’s receiving the commission and the date of the first performance. But I think the reason is principally because Mozart returned to the opera seria genre, and, as a general rule, opera seria, with its polite formality, stock characters, and moralizing tone, has not had much appeal after the eighteenth century. The likable characters, wit, and dramatic urgency of the other late operas are almost completely absent from La Clemenza di Tito.
Having said that, it was still written by Mozart, and there is lovely music in it. An interesting bit of trivia is that this was the first of Mozart’s operas to be performed in London. If you had been a Londoner with not enough money to go abroad, and just enough money to gain admittance to the city’s opera house, La Clemenza di Tito would have been your first impression of Mozartian opera.
The basic story concerns a plot against the life of the Emperor Titus, and his magnanimous clemency toward the perpetrators. As a musical highlight, I have selected the finale of Act I, which is unique in Mozart’s oeuvre for the manner in which it brings together both a choir and a group of soloists in a finale. The conventions of opera-plotting required that Act I end in a state of general confusion, it being the task of Act II to draw order from the disorder. In this case, the act ends with a botched attempt on the life of Titus.
Here is a clip from a 1980 film version of the opera. There are no subtitles, and it is probably not very easy to follow what is happening, and that’s ok. (The libretto is here, starting at “Deh conservate”, if your Italian is good.)