La Clemenza di Tito – Mozart’s Operatic Failure?


Among Mozart’s mature operas, none has been subjected to harsher critical scrutiny than his “final” stage work, La clemenza di Tito.[1] Only during the past thirty years or so has a new, revisionist spirit of re-assessment taken place, one still sufficiently incomplete for both Florence Badol-Bertrand and René Jacobs to feel it necessary to undertake a vigorous defence of the opera in the booklet notes provided with Jacobs’ 2005 recording.[2]


The “facts” that form the basis for the poor critical response can be summarised as follows. In the summer of 1791, Mozart, already at work on Die Zauberflõte and having recently received the mysterious commission to compose the Requiem, was approached to compose a new opera intended to form part of the ceremonies attending the crowning in Prague of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Despite being unwell and faced with an alarmingly short time scale – the opera would have to be ready by early September – Mozart agreed for reasons both diplomatic and financial. The choice of libretto had fallen on La clemenza di Tito, an old and highly successful opera seria by Metastasio that had already been set some forty times since Antonio Caldara’s initial 1734 version. To bring what was by 1791 an outmoded libretto into line with current taste, Caterino Mazzolà, at the time a short-lived successor to Lorenzo da Ponte as court poet in Vienna, was engaged to adapt Metastasio’s original. Despite Mazzolà’s best efforts, Tito remained a stilted, old-fashioned piece that could have held little appeal to the composer of the great da Ponte comedies. Almost predictably, when the opera was first given before the emperor and a glittering array of guests at the National (now Tyl) Theatre on 6 September it was a failure epitomised by the notorious reported verdict of the Empress Maria Louisa: “una porcheria tedesca” (a German swinishness).


Such are the bare outlines of the story behind Mozart’s last opera. However, as we will see it is a narrative that contains more than a fair degree of the kind of myth that has surrounded the composer since his death just three months after the premiere of Tito. Notwithstanding, it has formed the basis for much of the damaging criticism attracted by the opera, adverse comment that starts with that of the indefatigable diarist Count Zinzendorf, an inveterate gossip and observer of many Mozartian events: “At 5 o’clock to the theatre in the Old Town, to the opera which is given by the Estates [the government of Bohemia] […] The court did not arrive until after 7:30 and we were regaled with the most tedious spectacle, La clemenza di Tito…”.[3] Against such a contemporary verdict can be placed that of Mozart’s earliest biographer, Franz Xavier Niemetschek, writing in 1794. His observations remain perceptive today:


…since the subject is too simple to be able to interest the mass of people busy with coronation festivities, balls and illuminations; and since it is – shame on our age – a serious opera, it pleased less in general than its really heavenly music deserved. There is a certain Grecian simplicity, a still sublimity, which strikes a sensitive heart gently but none the less profoundly – which fit admirably to the character of Titus, the times and the entire subject, and also reflect honour on Mozart’s delicate taste and his sense of characterisation […] Connoisseurs are in doubt whether Titus does not in fact surpass Don Giovanni.[4]


While few today, “connoisseurs” or otherwise, would be likely to echo the final words of the quotation, Niemetschek’s references to “Grecian simplicity” and “a still sublimity” remain likely to evoke the sympathetic agreement of many Mozartians. One of the most interesting observations in the quotation is the writer’s verdict on his contemporaries’ response to serious opera, an unusual reaction that runs counter to the widely perceived notion that “tragedy” ran counter to Enlightenment thought. It might at this point be helpful to provide a précis for the reader unfamiliar with plot.


The action takes place in Rome around AD80. The newly enthroned emperor Tito (Titus) Vespasian plans to marry the Judean princess Berenice (who plays no part in the opera), but under pressure to marry a Roman gives her up. This provides fresh hope to Vitellia, daughter of the deposed former emperor Vitellius, but her ambitions are dashed when Tito chooses instead Servilia, the sister of Tito’s close friend Sesto (Sextus). The enraged Vitellia, with whom Sesto is blindly in love, sets her lover on the course of betraying Tito, ordering him to kill the emperor. The horrified Sesto accedes, but fails in his mission, during the course of which Vitellia discovers that Tito has dropped his plan to marry Servilia, having been told that she and Sesto’s friend Annio (Annius) are in love. Tito will now indeed marry Vitellia. Sesto, overcome with remorse, confesses to Annio, but Vitellia, fearing Sesto will implicate her in the plot, persuades him not to give himself up. But his role in the assassination attempt has already been uncovered. Tito, unable to be believe Sesto’s confession, confronts him. He is profoundly distressed by Sesto’s admission that he alone was responsible and vacillates between sending him to his death and clemency. Realising Sesto is prepared to go to his death for her, Vitellia makes a public confession, thus relinquishing her chance of the throne and power. In an extraordinary act of clemency, Tito forgives all involved in the plot.


The reader will instantly recognise that we have here a paradigmatic seria plot. The themes of thwarted love, political machination, treachery and betrayal, noble friendship and, above all, the presence of a heroic, magnanimous ruler, were all grist to the mill for the genre. While the concept of the powerful ruler who forgives all for every transgression, treachery not excluded, seems to be stretching belief one step too far, it is worth placing in context. One of the prime objectives of showing a ruler in a highly favourable light was didactic, an example to the ruler that he should govern with wisdom, humility and humanity. Viewed in that way, the choice of La Clemenza di Tito to celebrate the coronation of a new emperor and king makes sound sense, perhaps by 1791 even enhanced by a hint of warning that it was more than ever necessary for omnipotent kings to rule wisely. It is a misunderstanding of the nature and role of serious opera that has formed much of the foundation for subsequent negative reaction to the work.


Although Tito gained the unlikely distinction of being the first Mozart opera to be given in London (in 1806), for much of the nineteenth century it was largely ignored by opera houses and universally treated by the composer’s biographers as a somewhat unfortunate appendage to the great comedies. Even as fundamentally sympathetic a writer as Otto Jahn, the most thorough of Mozart’s early biographers, reveals himself as very much a man of his time. His four-volume The Life of Mozart, which first appeared between 1856 and 1859, devotes considerable space to Tito. Jahn, who was not a musician and could have known little opera seria, is merciless in his treatment of Metastasio, finding that “Both the plot and the characters are absolutely devoid of dramatic interest” and that his text “had by now become fetters binding him [Mozart] to forms and dogmas which were virtually obsolete”. “Mozart”, Jahn tells his reader, “had abandoned [opera seria] long ago, but was constrained [my italics] here to resume”.[5] As we will see, the notion that Mozart was in some way forced to compose an outmoded kind of opera runs deeply through the folklore attached to Tito. Metastasio-bashing is also a dominant theme in Edward J. Dent’s still valuable monograph on the operas first published in 1913.[6] For Dent, while grudgingly conceding that “Metastasio’s drama, judged by the standards of his own day [my italics again], was a good enough piece of work” calls Tito “a pompous and frigid drama of Roman history such as had been fashionable in court circles half a century earlier”. Musically, Dent found a conflict of style between the ensemble numbers, mainly introduced by Mazzolà, and the arias, which largely retained Metastasio’s texts. “The consequence is that the arias in Mozart’s opera are either unimportant and uninspired, or else give the impression of being concert pieces”, pieces that betray “a want of inspiration and real passion”.


Conflict of style also forms the basis for the dismissal of both Idomeneo and Tito by Charles Rosen. In the most notorious chapter in his seminal book on classical style Rosen argues that the dramatic failure of both operas stems from the inability of the eighteenth century to handle tragedy, that opera seria is a genre incapable of being brought to life by even the greatest composers.[7] For Rosen, “Neither the High Baroque style of Bach, Handel, and Rameau nor the classical style of Haydn and Mozart was apt for the rendering of secular tragedy…”, which remained an “unattainable ideal”. For Rosen opera seria is fatally undermined by both its conventions and the use of a poetic framework that is inimitable with any concept of true drama. In his view, “Metastasio is intolerable except in the smallest of doses”. And in words that must have come back to haunt him a hundred times, he writes “if it [Idomeneo] could have been saved for the repertory, it would have happened by now”. Tito comes in for even more drastic castigation:


More puzzling still, in an entirely different way, is the case of La Clemenza di Tito [sic], Mozart’s last opera. Written (in haste, it is true) at a time when Mozart was composing some of his greatest music, it is a work of exquisite grace and rarely redeemed dullness […] Tito has all the finish of Mozart’s finest works – Mozart’s music is never less than beautiful – but it is difficult to convey how unmemorable it is.


Rosen’s “rarely redeemed dullness” becomes “stale routine” in another monograph that appeared a few years later, the stimulating, if idiosyncratic work by Wolfgang Hildesheimer first published in German in 1977.[8] Like Rosen, Hildesheimer has little understanding of and even less sympathy for the conventions of opera seria, “a genre [that] has only a museum-piece kind of beauty today”. Both in fact view opera seria from a dramatic perspective of verisimilitude that belongs to the twentieth rather than the eighteenth century. In short, both Rosen and Hildesheimer, less forgivably than such earlier writers such as Jahn and Dent, want opera seria to have been something it was never intended to be, employing the greater “naturalism” of opera buffa as a scourge. Now used to protagonists such as Don Giovanni and Figaro, what interest could Mozart have possibly taken in the “stiff” figure of Tito or the “unreal, stillborn artifact” Sesto? In Hildesheimer’s words, the libretto of Tito is one Mozart would “tossed into the wastebasket” given freedom of choice. “In order to do absolute justice to the music, we would have to take the text seriously, and though Mozart was obliged [my italics] to, we cannot”.  


There the case against Tito largely rested, a case based to a considerable extent on a misconception of what opera seria stood for and its status in 1791, and, more damagingly, a misunderstanding of many of the facts surrounding the composition of the opera. Yet even before the appearance of Rosen’s book a new revisionist spirit was stirring, spurred not by writers but performers. In 1967 the first complete recording appeared on Decca. Conducted by István Kertész and featuring an exceptional cast, it was this recording that first caused many of us to question much of what we had read about Tito. The opera was revealed not as the frigid marmoreal Roman relic of tradition, but a warmly sympathetic work in which Mozart had been enabled to return to the theme of forgiveness, an idée fixe running like a thread thorough his operas. And Tito’s is a particularly gracious form of forgiveness, extending not only to a remorseful Sesto, but even to Vitellia, the architect of the plot against Tito and an even more dangerous example of “hell hath no fury” than Elettra, her counterpart in Idomeneo. The Kertész recording was quickly followed in 1969 by the first of three productions by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (in Cologne) and one of simple classical beauty and dignity by Anthony Besch for Covent Garden in 1975, all demonstrably showing that far from being remote and unstageable, Tito was capable of moving and elevating a modern audience.  


But we must return to examine the question of opera seria, Mozart’s reversion to which was (and sometimes still is) seen by critics of Tito as an enforced return to an outmoded genre. As both Robbins Landon and Jacobs rightly note, opera seria in the most general sense was in fact by no means moribund by 1791, although it had evolved and Mazzolà’s libretto for Tito provides a fine example of such development. We have a clear indication of this in Mozart’s entry in his own catalogue, where although he describes Tito as an “opera Seria in Due Atti” he adds the significant rider “ridotta à vera opera dal Sigre Mazzolà” (made into a real opera by Signore Mazzolà). Metastasio’s original libretto was therefore in Mozart’s eyes no longer a “real opera”, but Mazzolà’s adaptation was. Hildesheimer’s contention that it is unlikely that Mozart was satisfied with the libretto and that “ he must have meant something else” by the words “real opera” is unconvincingly weak and unsubstantiated. Mazzolà’s modernisation of the libretto consisted of two fundamental features: firstly, a tightening of the structure from three to two acts, achieved by the excision of an extraneous scene in the middle of the second act and a considerable amount of secco or ordinary recitative. Secondly, the replacing of some of the arias with ensemble numbers, most particularly the great Finale of act I, a sequence unique in Mozart’s output for its climactic superimposition of the off-stage chorus against the quintet of solo singers who rush hither and thither as the Capitol burns and Tito is presumed dead, a scene as dramatically tight and tense as anything in Mozart. Also notable is the brevity of many of the numbers, a far cry from the full da capo form of traditional opera seria. And far from Rosen’s “rarely redeemed dullness”, Tito is capable of engaging fully an audience through characters who may be types rather than the flesh and blood characters we meet in Figaro or Don Giovanni, but who are equally capable of expressing such emotions as jealousy, remorse, loyalty or forgiveness common to the human spirit.


To attempt to unravel some of the other myths that surround the composition of La clemenza di Tito we must return to the Vienna of the summer of 1791. The commission to provide a coronation opera for Prague had come from the Bohemian Estates, the governing body of Bohemia, who entrusted it to the impresario in control of the National Theatre, Domenico Guardasoni. Mozart had first encountered Guardasoni in 1789, when according to the composer the newly arrived impresario first approached him to write an opera to succeed the huge Prague success of Don Giovanni, a project that apparently came to nothing. As Guardasoni’s contract (dated 8 July 1791) with the Estates shows,[9] Tito was a fallback in the likely event that there was not time for a new libretto to be written. Among the stipulations written into the contract was his obligation to employ for the opera a first-rate Italian castrato and prima donna, in addition to which the music was to be set by a “celebrated master”. Curiously, given the connections between Guardasoni and Mozart, the first such “celebrated master” the impresario approached was not Mozart, but Antonio Salieri, the court Kapellmeister in Vienna. Possibly Guardasoni thought he was being “politically correct” in approaching Salieri, although at the time the Italian composer was not in great favour at court. In any event, Salieri turned down the commission, according to his own testimony not just once, but no fewer than five times. Even allowing for exaggeration on Salieri’s part, given the need for haste it seems incongruous that Guardasoni persisted with Salieri for so long before turning to Mozart, from whom he had already requested an opera for Prague two years earlier. It is one of the more mysterious episodes surrounding the composition of Tito.


Ultimately Guardasoni did approach Mozart, seemingly sometime between mid July and the end of that month. Mozart accepted the commission for a fee of 200 ducats (a substantial amount) plus 50 ducats for the necessary travel expenses to oversee the production. Why did he do so if he was so busy with Die Zauberflõte and ostensibly the Requiem, while at the same time reputedly unwell? Certainly the money would have come in useful, especially as his pregnant wife Constanze had again been taking the waters at Baden. During the time Constanze was in Baden (from early June) there is no hint in his lovingly playful letters that Mozart was feeling unwell or under any particular pressure; indeed he found the time for several visits to Constanze. Neither is there any evidence to suggest that Mozart would have felt in some way obliged to accept Guardasoni’s commission had he not wished to do so.


There is one further curious subsidiary fact related to the composition of the opera. At least one of the arias in Tito was in part in existence before Mozart was officially called in to write the coronation opera. It stems from a benefit concert given by Mozart’s friend Josepha Duschek in Prague on 26 April 1791, the programme of which included two new vocal works by Mozart. One is described as a “Rondo with obbligato basset-horn”, the obbligato part being played by the clarinettist Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart a little later wrote his last major work, the Concerto in A, K622. This is clearly identifiable with Vitellia’s great Act 2 scena “Non più di fiori”, one of the most elaborate numbers in the opera, although examination of paper types has revealed that only the allegro section of the aria survived from the Prague concert, the preceding larghetto having been recast for Tito. That the aria was not entered separately in Mozart’s own catalogue has led some scholars to suggest that Mozart was working on Tito before receiving the commission, the implication being that this was in fact the opera Guardasoni and Mozart had discussed back in 1789. Attractive though the idea is, it fails to bear examination. Had there already been a suitable coronation opera in preparation, the impresario would hardly have first gone to Salieri once he received the contract from the Bohemian Estates. It would also predicate that Mozart and Mazzolà were in contact before they came together to prepare the opera in considerable haste, a scenario unsupported by evidence. Moreover there is no suggestion, either from Mozart himself or other contemporary documents, that the composer was at any time working on a new opera before Emanuel Schikaneder approached him in late spring 1791 to compose Die Zauberflöte.


Regrettably we have absolutely no extant records relating to the collaboration between Mozart and Mazzolà, leaving the degree to which Mozart provided input into the task of revising Metastasio’s libretto (if indeed he did at all) as speculation. Yet he must at the very least have been happy in general with Mazzolà’s adaptation, since as we have seen Mozart considered the poet had made “a real opera” of it. In the wake of establishing the partnership of Mozart and Mazzolà, Guardasoni hurried off to Bologna to engage his castrato (Sesto) and soprano (Vitellia), their names as yet unknown. In keeping with the practice of the day, composers always geared arias to the particular range and strengths of the principals, therefore leaving Mozart with no option but to work initially on the more generalised ensemble numbers until such time as he knew who his singers would be.[10] It is probable that Mozart finally knew the identity of his cast shortly before leaving for Prague with Constanze and his pupil Franz Xavier Süssmayr, a journey most likely commenced on 25 August and completed on 28 August, leaving just nine days for Tito to be finished and performed on coronation day. In order to speed matters up, Mozart farmed out the composition of the secco recitatives to “a pupil”, generally assumed to be Süssmayr, although as Robbins Landon and Jacobs have pointed out there is no proof as to the identity of the author. The uneven quality of the result has led most conductors to make often- severe cuts to the plain recitative, a practice trenchantly attacked by Jacobs, who restored them in full in his recording. During the final stages of work on the opera Mozart was reported to have been ill, no cause being given and it may simply and understandably have been overwork. Nonetheless, Mozart was able to add the completed La clemenza di Tito to his catalogue on 5 September, the day prior to the coronation. At the actual ceremony the following day Salieri in his official capacity conducted a Mass by Mozart, probably the so-called “Coronation” Mass in C, K317, one of three Mozart Masses the Kapellmeister took with him to Prague, thus casting interesting light on Salieri’s perceived “jealousy” of Mozart.


In addition to the royal party and the many foreign dignitaries who attended the premiere, the theatre was open free of charge to those of the general public able to find space, among them possibly the aging Casanova, who tells us in his Histoire de ma vie that he attended the coronation celebrations, although sadly he had long since given up on the Histoire, thus depriving us of what would have undoubtedly have been a lively account of the febrile atmosphere that prevailed in Prague during those early September days. Doubtless due to the haste with which the production was mounted, the cast was not printed in the libretto customarily distributed to the audience, but it has since been established that it included the castrato Domenico Bedini (Sesto) and Maria Marchetti-Fantozzi (Vitellia), the two foreign stars imported by Guardasoni, in addition to the tenor Antonio Baglioni (Tito), who had created the role of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni four years earlier. The part of Sesto’s friend Annius was taken by a woman, the soprano Carolina Perina. As noted at the outset, the first performance did not meet with general approval, probably at least in part due to a poor performance. Niemetschek certainly suggests as much: “but as fate willed it, a miserable castrato and a prima donna who sang more with her hands than in her throat, and whom one had to consider a lunatic, sang the principal parts”. Then we are left with the infamous “German swinishness” comment of the empress, a devotee of Neapolitan opera seria, words eagerly taken up by detractors but in fact reported only a century later.


That the court did not enjoy the opera after a long day of ceremony is however true and its lack of enthusiasm is possibly reflected in the poor houses at subsequent performances, although a contemporary report suggests high ticket prices may also have been a contributory factor. With the first performance of Die Zauberflöte on 30 September looming, the Mozarts had returned to Vienna in mid-September, leaving the remaining performances in other hands. Nonetheless, it seems that by the end of the run matters had improved to the point where to describe the Prague performances of Tito as a failure is at best a half-truth. On 8 October Mozart wrote a high-spirited letter to Constanze, now back in Baden, in which he tells not only of the continuing success of the new opera, but that he had heard from Stadler, who had travelled to Prague to play the important basset-horn obbligato parts in Tito and had remained in the city. “And the strangest thing of all is that on the very evening when my new opera was performed for the first time with such success, Tito was given in Prague for the last time with tremendous applause”. Bedini apparently had sung “better than ever” (pace Niemetschek), leaving the impression that the production had by this time “bedded down”.


In the years following Mozart’s death, the fate of La clemenza di Tito took a remarkable and unexpected turn. That it did so is entirely down to one person – Mozart’s widow Constanze, who during these years displayed extraordinary energy in propagating both the performance and publication of her late husband’s works in order to support herself and her two sons. On 29 December 1794 Constanze mounted a benefit performance of Tito at the Kärtnertor Theatre in Vienna, a city that had yet to see the opera. The part of Sextus was sung by Constanze’s sister and Mozart’s first love, Aloysia Lange, who also took the part when Constanze again had the opera performed in Vienna, this time at the Burgtheater, on 31 March 1795. At this performance, which at the request of Constanze was attended by our old friend Count Zinzendorf (this time without comment on the work), one of Mozart’s piano concertos was played in the interval by a rising star of the Viennese musical firmament, Ludwig van Beethoven. Thus commenced a series of performances of Tito under the auspices of Constanze. In September 1795, it was done in Graz, shortly after which she and her sister left on a concert tour of Germany, where substantial extracts of the opera were given Leipzig, Berlin and possibly Dresden. In these Constanze herself sang, taking the role of Vitellia. Back in Austria, further complete performances are recorded in Linz (November 1796) and Vienna (April 1798 and March 1799).


To what can we attribute Constanze’s devotion to performing Tito, a devotion that in terms of statistics outweighs that accorded to all the other operas put together? Could it simply be that the success of the first Viennese performance encouraged her to repeat a successful formula, a known money-spinner? It seems unlikely, since Mozart’s great comedies, especially Don Giovanni, were by the last decade of the century making steady inroads into the repertoire of opera house across Europe. Any of them would doubtless have served Constanze’s purpose. One might conjecture that perhaps the reason for her special attachment to Tito can be found in some association with that final trip to Prague made by her and her husband. However, I would suggest that we might look more securely for a musical explanation. We know from Mozart himself that Constanze had a penchant for fugues, a particularly serious form of music. In contrast to the ill-founded accusations of frivolity and irresponsibility so often been attached to her name, I would suggest that the seriousness, grandeur and dignity of La clemenza di Tito evoked an especially empathetic response to an opera for which Constanze developed a lasting and special affection. Perhaps in the end it was Constanze who was right and posterity that was wrong for so long.   
















[1]    Whether or not Tito is Mozart’s last opera is a moot point. It was almost certainly started after Die Zauberflöte, but completed and staged before it. 

[2]    harmonia mundi HMC 901923–24 – see also the discography.

[3]    From Zinzendorf’s Diary, Prague, 6 September 1791. Quoted in Otto Erich Deutsch, Mozart A Documentary Biography, English trans., London (1965).

[4]    Quoted in H. C. Robbins Landon, 1791 Mozart’s Last Year. London (1988), pp. 117-118. The book provides a particularly lucid and detailed account of the genesis of Tito.                             

[5]    Otto Jahn, The Life of Mozart, trans. Pauline D. Townsend, rep. New York. Vol. 3, p. 292ff.

[6]    E. J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study. London (1913), pp. 315-321.

[7]    Charles Rosen, The Classical Style. London (1971), p. 167ff.

[8]    Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart. Trans. Marion Faber. London (1983). See pp. 301-309 for the section devoted to Tito.  

[9]    It is reproduced in full in Robbins Landon, Mozart’s Last Year, pp. 88-89.

[10] This is proved by Alan Tyson’s examination of the five kinds of paper type used by Mozart for Tito. See Appendix D “Analysis of paper types used for La clemenza di Tito in Robbins Landon, Mozart’s Last Year, p. 210.