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James Conlon on "The Clemency of Titus"

Clemency, Forgiveness and Love: A Note from Music Director James Conlon

Tutto so, tutti assolvo, e tutto obblio.
I know everything, I forgive everything, and I forget everything.
Emperor Tito in La Clemenza di Tito (Act II, final scene)

In 1789, the French populace rose up against their king and queen and brought about a revolution, eventually executing their monarchs. Thirteen years before that, the American colonies had rebelled against the British Crown and established their own sovereign nation.

None of this was lost on royals across the entire continent of Europe, who reacted with alarm and concern. The subject of “good governance,” even by monarchs who claimed to rule by Divine Right, acquired a new urgency. The French Revolution struck especially close to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, for Marie Antoinette, the last French queen, was his sister.

So in 1791, when Leopold was to be crowned in Prague, a celebratory opera was to be commissioned. And because one of the contemporary models of Age of Enlightenment authority was that of the “Enlightened Despot,” the new opera could both flatter the new leader and subtly suggest to him an exemplary model of authority. The chosen opera would portray a Roman emperor—and by extension the newly crowned monarch—as not only a man of justice but also of mercy.

The commission went to Mozart. For his subject, he was given a decades-old and frequently reused libretto by Metastasio: La Clemenza di Tito or The Clemency of Titus.

An opera, like any other work of art, exists simultaneously within and without its cultural context. Each work is born in a specific time and place, but its inclusion in a corpus of works that we refer to as “repertory” or “canon” is proof that it has withstood the test of time (by whatever moveable criteria we happen to be employing). Just the fact that we view it, listen to it or watch it in a theater today, is a measure to what degree there is something “immortal” in it.

In today’s world, opera is constantly being scrutinized for relevancy. Most of this examination focuses on dramatic and theatrical values. Plot and characters are placed under the microscope of current political, social and ethical ideas. Texts, by far, provoke knottier challenges than the music. In an overwhelming majority of cases, the text and social context could be considered timebound, but the music isn’t ensnared in the era of its composition. Otherwise we would no longer be listening to it. Music itself accords a sense of permanence, a quality of timelessness.

La Clemenza di Tito is an interesting example of this duality. On the occasion of LA Opera’s first production of this, Mozart’s penultimate opera (its premiere preceded that of The Magic Flute by 24 days), we can ask ourselves several important questions. A Roman emperor grants clemency—pardon for traitorous actions—as well as forgiveness of personal wrongs. Do these magnanimous acts invite us, in 2019, to reflect on parallels in today’s world?

An astounding number of operas—45, including one by Gluck—were drawn from the original 1734 libretto by Metastasio, the indisputable giant of 18th-century Italian poetry. The story, though overused in Metastasio’s time, is still interesting, important and relevant. But why is Mozart’s opera still produced on contemporary opera stages and not any of the others? It is, I believe, because Mozart’s genius elevated and reinvigorated what had already become a tired subject. His music renders it seaworthy today.

Mozart’s religious, metaphysical and social orientation often brought him to issues of justice, clemency and forgiveness. They are constant themes in his works. His three great final works, completed in 1791 during the last four months of his life, symbolically represent three powerful (at times conflicting) forces in his extraordinary spiritual and intellectual soul. They are, in reverse order:

1) The Requiem Mass (left incomplete at his death on December 5). Although written in response to a commission that he had continually delayed fulfilling, this piece reveals the formidable influence of his Roman Catholic education. It is not only the last but, even in its incomplete form, the greatest of his sacred works.

2) The Magic Flute (premiered on September 30). He accomplished several goals in creating this unique Singspiel. He had produced a work in German, with a German cast. He created a work for the popular (i.e. non-aristocratic) audience. Most importantly, he produced a fairy tale replete with the philosophical, ethical, spiritual and intellectual symbolism of the Free Masons. He succeeded in sharing his decade-long adherence to Masonic principles with a popular (that is, non-aristocratic and partially uneducated) audience.

It should be pointed out that the conflict and contradictions between Roman Catholicism and Free Masonry seemed to pose no problem to Mozart.

3) La Clemenza di Tito (premiered on September 6) tangentially draws from both of Mozart’s two spiritual sources but is far more secular. The contemporary question of good governance, mentioned above, is central: how does a good and just monarch rule? Mozart answers: with compassion and mercy. The political complexities surrounding the new emperor and Mozart’s probable disinterest in them (his goal was more practical: he needed patronage) are beyond the scope of this essay. But Mozart clearly prizes not just the royal virtue of clemency, but also the personal virtue of forgiveness. The perennial debate pitting justice and mercy as opposing exigencies is surpassed by the Christian concept of absolution. The monarch represents God on earth, less by his self-appointed divine right, but by virtue of his magnanimous generosity of spirit.

In the words of Nicholas Till, author of Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas, “Mozart’s Clemenza is not a conventional hymn to enlightened despotism, as is usually claimed, but a missile lobbed in the aristocratic counter-revolution to absolutism.” The aristocracy, represented by the Bohemian Estates, vigorously debated the emperor’s power to pardon, partly in response to perceived imperial abuse. Similar tensions can be sensed within today’s political environment.

The monarch attains the divine Godhead (to paraphrase The Magic Flute) when he/she exercises forgiveness, not just mercy. Imperial clemency (or presidential pardons) rescind the punishment while acknowledging guilt. Forgiveness, on the other hand, while all-encompassing and deeply personal, cancels the offence. Tito, as emperor, pardons the crime, but Tito, the man, forgives the perpetrators.

Political intrigue interested Mozart only to a certain degree. His subject is always love and its turbulence. The contrast of positive and negative aspects of love are always close to the essence. Renunciation for love seems to be particularly emphasized in Clemenza: Servilia renounces the throne for love; Sesto his honor, in order to serve Vitellia’s scheming; and Vitellia her life, to save Sesto. Tito renounces personal love altogether for his devotion to Rome. By his forgiveness, he sanctions everyone else to live as amorous couples.

The frequent appearance of clemency or forgiveness among Mozart’s characters is impressive and yet occasionally ambiguous. The Countess, Donna Elvira, and Pasha Selim are the most prominent models of forgiveness. Susanna, Konstanze and Blöndchen easily forgive smaller offenses. Ferrando and Guglielmo pardon their errant lovers—but do they forgive them? Sarastro preaches forgiveness but nevertheless punishes Monostatos. The Queen of the Night and Elettra cannot forgive, and hence condemn themselves. Mozart himself seems to forgive everyone—except Don Giovanni, whose abominations are too great. Divine justice itself decrees his punishment.

Tito is the culmination of this chain. We recognize the strength and self-confidence of those who rule with goodness. When the monarch knows the meaning of clemency and forgiveness, the common good is served. Tito knows not only these, but the power of dedication and service to his people: “Oh eternal gods, cut short my life on the day that Rome will not be my care.” And when he says that it should be noted in Rome ch’io tutto so [that I know everything], we recognize the worthy leader; tutti assolvo [I absolve everyone], we acknowledge his willingness to annul the punishment of transgressors; e tutto obblio [and I forget everything], we celebrate his Godlike, transcendent strength to forgive.

By September 6, 1791, Mozart had set those words to music. With those words, he had already prepared himself for his appointment with destiny. Just three months later, he was dead.