Rome, first century AD
The Roman emperor Tito is in love with Berenice, daughter of the king of Judea. Vitellia, the former emperor’s daughter, feels that she should hold the throne herself and asks her young admirer Sesto to assassinate Tito. Though he is a close friend of the emperor, Sesto will do anything to please Vitellia, so he agrees. When Sesto’s friend Annio tells him that Tito, for reasons of state, will not marry Berenice, Vitellia becomes hopeful again and asks Sesto to put off the assassination plot. Annio reminds Sesto of his own wish to marry Sesto’s sister Servilia. The two men affirm their friendship.
At the forum, the Romans praise Tito. The emperor tells Annio and Sesto that since he has to take a Roman wife he intends to marry Servilia. Diplomatically, Annio assures Tito that he welcomes his decision. Tito declares that the only joy of power lies in the opportunity to help others. When Annio tells Servilia of the emperor’s intentions, she assures him of her love.
In the imperial palace, Tito explains his philosophy of forgiveness to Publio, the captain of the guard. Servilia enters and confesses to the emperor that she has already agreed to marry Annio. Tito thanks her for her honesty and says he will not marry her against her wishes. Vitellia, unaware that Tito has changed his mind, furiously insults Servilia and asks Sesto to kill the emperor at once. He assures her that her wish is his command. After he has left, Publio and Annio tell Vitellia that Tito has decided to choose her as his wife. Vitellia desperately tries to stop Sesto but realizes it is too late.
Sesto has launched the conspiracy and set fire to the Capitol. Full of shame, he runs into Annio, evades his questions and rushes off. Servilia appears, then Publio, and finally Vitellia. They are all searching for Sesto and believe that Tito has died. Sesto returns, looking for a place to hide. He is about to confess his crime but is silenced by Vitellia.
In the palace, Annio tells Sesto that the emperor is still alive. When Sesto confesses his assassination attempt but refuses to give any reason, Annio advises him to admit everything to Tito and hope for forgiveness. Vitellia rushes in, begging Sesto to flee, but she is too late: a fellow conspirator has betrayed him, and Publio enters with soldiers to arrest him. Sesto asks Vitellia to remember his love.
The Roman people are thankful that the emperor has survived. Tito struggles to understand the conspirators’ motives and doubts Sesto’s disloyalty. Publio warns him against being too trusting. When it is announced that Sesto has confessed and been sentenced to death by the Senate, Annio asks Tito to consider the case compassionately. The emperor will not sign the death decree until he has had the chance to question Sesto himself. Alone with Tito, Sesto assures him that he did not want the throne for himself, but he hesitates to implicate Vitellia. Tito, not satisfied with this explanation, dismisses him. Sesto asks Tito to remember their friendship and is led off. The emperor signs the decree, then tears it up: he cannot become a tyrant and execute a friend. He cries out to the gods, saying that if they want a cruel ruler, they have to take away his human heart. Servilia and Annio beg Vitellia to help save Sesto. She realizes that she must confess her crime rather than accept the throne at the price of Sesto’s life.
In a public square, Tito is about to pronounce Sesto’s sentence, when Vitellia appears and admits that she alone is responsible for the assassination attempt. The bewildered emperor explains that his intention was to forgive Sesto anyway. He finally decides to pardon all the conspirators. The Roman people praise Tito for his kindness and ask the gods to grant him a long life.
Reprinted courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.