Warszawska Opera Kameralna (Warsaw Chamber Opera) Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito - 13 February 2018

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the child Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (detail), 1763-64
(Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments)

There is a strange kind of human being in whom there is an eternal struggle between body and soul, animal and god, for dominance. In all great men this mixture is striking, and in none more so than in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.   (Alfred Einstein)

I feel this passage not only describes the psyche of Mozart but also the character of the subject of his final opera, the Roman Emperor Titus Flāvius Caesar Vespasiānus Augustus popularly known as Titus (39 - 81 AD). The characteristic two faces of Janus preside over the dual nature of the psychological conflict within the emperor's life, that of war and peace, punishment and clemency. Yes, certainly he assisted the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum and a fierce fire in Rome in 80 AD. However historically Titus seems rather schizoid, not only capable of  laudable clemency but also of insane vengeful savagery as in the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The city was utterly destroyed, burned, sacked and its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants murdered, raped, some even crucified, their animals slaughtered. He is no hero of clemency in Israel among the Jewish people.

Was it the schizophrenic nature of the emperor's character that attracted Mozart to the plot as originally written by Metastasio but rendered a 'real opera' by Signor Mazzolà, court poet to the Elector of Saxony? Or was it primarily simply another dramatic investigation of the complex nature of love by Mozart. We shall never really know...perhaps both. 

In the summer of his last year on this earth Mozart received a final commission. He was invited to write a festive ceremonial opera for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia (incidentally also known by the nickname 'Tytus'). Initially the Metastasio stipulated libretto of 1734 was unsuccessful. In fact the Empress referred to the opera as una porcheria tedesca (German nonsense) however it achieved later success after transformation by Signor Mazzolà for which Mozart was eternally grateful. Three acts were reduced to two, new tuneful arias written and the lengthy dull recitatives shortened. He also incorporated the spectacular burning of the Capitol. The opera was required in something like a month which was quite a pressure as Mozart was composing the Requiem and Die Zauberflöte at the same time. However no composition appeared to suffer as the quill pen of genius flew across the pages.

I am unable to agree with the great Alfred Einstein in his book  Mozart: His Character; His Work (London 1946) that the characters are 'mere puppets' although there is an almost inescapable static quality to the original staging determined by the libretto. Unless the producer is highly imaginative with a significant budget to support the scenography of ancient Rome, another solution must be found. The scenography in the original production I saw in the Mozart festival of the early 1990s under the artistic direction of Stefan Sutkowski and a scenographer Andrzej Sadowski, only used two monumental white columns of the Tuscan Order to symbolize ancient Rome. Here the minimalist black panel background, divided into sections, laid a great deal of the visual responsibility onto the cast, dancers, chorus and costumes.

In this production directed by Marek Weiss, one answer to the minimalist creative dilemma posed was to direct the opera almost as a variety of 'opera ballet' with a great deal of choreographed movement by additional dancers (The alluring White Dance Theatre) not included in the original eighteenth century conception. This imaginative rather 'avant-garde' solution met with mixed success to my mind and rather distracted me from the intense emotional drama portrayed in Mozart's music and operatic acting. This was especially obvious when the dancers interacted 'meaningfully' with the characters. Sometimes the meaning escaped me completely and I remained confused. On others the significance was perfectly clear (the scene where Titus is bathed half naked in typical 'Roman Emperor style' by a bevy of  scantily clothed, beautiful young female dancers). 

Although the spectacular balletic, erotic, sometimes graphic illustration of the violently conflicting inner emotions of the main protagonists was at times both moving and entertaining (choreography and costumes by Izadora Weiss), and on many occasions rather effective, I felt their appearances on stage could have been significantly reduced. This would have added to the depth and significance of a less frequent balletic commentary.

I loved the vocal cohesion and fine intonation of the vocal ensemble of the Warsaw Chamber Opera under their director Krzysztof Kusiel-Moroz, especially during the passionate outburst during the firing of the Capitol. The Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense under the distinguished conductor Friedrich Haider gave a fine account of this so very 'classical 'Mozart score. The famous and popular Overture to this ceremonial production was finely done, uptempo, emphasizing the refined and energetic elements of great 'pomp and circumstance' as befits a coronation. Violetta Łabanov provided her customarily elegant fortepiano accompaniment to the sometimes rather dry recitatives. 

Tito Vespasian, sung by the agile tenor Aleksander Kunach, certainly bore a facial resemblance to a sculpture of the Roman Emperor. However I felt the potential for evil and brutality hidden within the mask of clemency he wore was not sufficiently ambiguous and whimsically cavalier in his portrayal of this role. Far too benign an individual as Roman emperors go, despite Tito being deified by the Roman Senate on his death as an exemplary emperor, an emperor greatly deserving of praise compared to the extreme behavior of tyrannical others. 

His relationship with Berenice has inspired many writers and artists over the centuries. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote he 'was the delight and darling of the human race; such surpassing ability had he, by nature, art, or good fortune, to win the affections of all men, and that, too, which is no easy task, while he was emperor.'  Other less generous, perhaps more realistic historians, felt he did not have enough time as ruler (a mere two years) to reveal his true character.

Tito Vespasian (Naples Museum statue)
Tito Vespasian (Versailles)
Click on the exceptional action photographs by Jarosław Budzyński for a finer rendition

Dancers, Chorus and Titus showing his predilection for crucifixions as well as the virtue of clemency

Vitellia and Sextus in the opening scene

Are we perhaps waiting
for Titus, mad with love, before my very eyes
to offer Berenice my throne
that he has usurped, and his hand in marriage?
Speak then, what are we waiting for?

Sextus in an agony of moral indecision contemplates murder - dancers in flight

Let one sweet look at least
be the reward for my devotion!

Tito grasping a reluctant Servilia from behind as his next best choice of woman 
(after many 'loves' before one suspects)

Vitellia (soprano Anna Mikołajczyk)

He who blindly believes
obliges one to keep faith;
he who always expects
to be betrayed invites betrayal.

The demanding role of Vitellia as singer and actress was movingly and passionately sung by the soprano Anna Mikołajczyk. This character is a formidable woman of sexual passion, tortuous pride, murderous intent, grasping ambition for political power and a merciless talent for the manipulation of men....surely Mozart's Lady Macbeth...

When she urges Sesto (the fine and emotionally committed dramatic soprano Elżbieta Wróbelewska) to assassinate Tito, Sesto agrees albeit reluctantly, singing splendidly one of the opera's most famous arias Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio. The  basset clarinet obbligato was hauntingly performed by Francesco Spendolini.


I go, but, my dearest,
make peace again with me.
I will be what you would most
have me be, do whatever you wish.

Look at me, and I will forget all
and fly to avenge you;
I will think only
of that glance at me.
Ah, ye gods, what power
you have given beauty!

Publio (the bass Piotr Novacki) the Praetorian prefect, commander of the Preatorian Guard gave solid 'military' support throughout.

Tito begins his attempt to seduce Sevilia

A scene from the spectacular danced Capitol on fire 


You assail me from every side!
Enough, enough, no more: your fury,
Vitellia, has already inspired me.
You soon shall see the Capitol aflame
and this dagger in Titus's breast ..

The Roman Emperor Titus lovingly and sensually bathed by beautiful young dancers

Servilia (the excellent soprano Paulina Hotrajska) and Annio (the ardent countertenor Jan Jakob Monowid) in the eloquent Duet  

"Ah, Perdona al primo affetto"

The more I hear your words,
the greater grows my passion.
When one soul unites with another,
what joy a heart feels!
Ah, eliminate from life
all that is not love!

Tito distracted momentarily by a pretty dancer during the desperately authentic  plea for clemency  and redemption by Sextus - Tito a compassionate perhaps but not a deep man...

Tito showing a hint of the sadist ironically stroking the cheek of a crucified dancer watched by a horrified chorus before releasing her in a manifestation of absolute power
A cat plays with the mouse

Tito about to tear up the Sesto execution order in an act of clemency after subjecting himself to an agony of analysis

This painting by Leonardo of St. John the Baptist was used in the production as a type of symbolical trop. The great English art historian Sir Kenneth Clark referred to this painting's ambiguity and that it posed 'the eternal question mark, the enigma of creation'He also observed the 'uneasiness' the painting imbues with its androgynous erotic charge.  Did this influence the choice of the Director Marek Weiss?

The final scene of La Clemenza di Tito
Were the cast posing the eternal existential question concerning the enigma of character and creation, a question mark that hovers over us all, perhaps never to answered ?

In short, for me this was certainly an alternative, thought provoking evening, perhaps an almost 'avant-garde' approach to staging Mozart. The augmentation of the original, rather visually static nature of the work, by athletic often erotic dancing, reflecting inner thoughts and emotions of the characters, was a most imaginative and bold directorial idea intended to stimulate the imagination. All this activity in an austere environment supported an excellent operatic cast.


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