Passion, jealousy, vengeance, and regicide returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage Friday night in a revival of La Clemenza di Tito that boasts a fine cast led by a superb Elina Garanca, who captures all the pathos and anguish of thwarted love and betrayed loyalty in Mozart's last opera.
That conflict of love and loyalty will be the focus of the Met's Live in HD series over the next two Saturdays. The Dec. 1 performance of La Clemenza di Tito will be simulcast to some 1,900 movie theaters in 64 countries around the world, and the Met's new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera will be shown the following week, on Dec. 8.
Tito is a final testament to Mozart's genius, especially considering it was a major rush job. He was asked to write it in July 1791 for the occasion of the Austrian emperor Leopold II's coronation as king of Bohemia in Prague on Sept. 6, and he reportedly composed the entire opera in 18 days.
For such an august occasion Mozart returned to the form of "opera seria," or "serious opera." He had just finished, or had nearly finished, Die Zauberflote, quite a different kind of opera, when he got the commission. Zauberflote had its premiere some three weeks after Tito, and Mozart died two months later.
The story line concerns the Emperor Titus, the penultimate of the 12 Caesars whose arch in Rome commemorates his conquest of Jerusalem. Like Un Ballo it is loosely based on fact (Titus pardoned two nobles who plotted to kill him), though also with a love interest thrown in to spice up the plot.
In the opera, Tito is looking for a wife and Vitellia, daughter of a previous emperor, thinks she should be chosen. When she is at first passed over, she convinces Sesto, who is Tito's most devoted follower but who also is in love with Vitellia, to murder the emperor out of spite. Tito manages to escape and although the Senate condemns Sesto to death for the attempt, the emperor grants him clemency.
From its first performance, Tito has prompted more extreme opinions than any other Mozart opera. The Italian wife of Leopold II pronounced it "German rubbish" ("porcheria tedesca") at its premiere, but for 50 years after Mozart's death it was more often performed than any other of his operas. It was largely ignored for the next 100 years, but has regained popularity over the past few decades, especially with the Met's 1984 production, and the cast it has assembled for this revival argue for its greatness.
Garanca has a crystal clear mezzo voice, warm and embracing, that conveys the entire range of Sesto's changing emotions. Her opening act aria "Parto, parto," with the accompanying clarinet solo from Anthony McGill, is almost a religious experience. There are actually two trouser roles - or given the ancient Rome setting, toga roles - in Tito, and in the second one Kate Lindsey offers an admirable turn as Annio, who is in love with Sesto's sister, Servilia.
Giuseppe Filianoti is commanding in the title role, his solid tenor full of authority and, at the end, compassion. Barbara Frittoli sings Vitellia convincingly, especially in her Act 2 aria "Non piu di fiori" And in her Metropolitan debut, the English soprano Lucy Crowe is impressive as Servilia.
From the opening bars of the rousing and majestic overture, the Met Orchestra plays magnificently throughout under Harry Bicket's baton, and Bradley Brookshire provides excellent harpsichord accompaniment for the recitatives. The Met chorus sings splendidly, and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's set of ancient Roman columns holds up surprisingly well.