Mozart the Monopolist, and the Tough Breaks of “Tito”

Ever hear a song that reminds you of another song? How about an opera that makes audiences forget dozens of other works? Emmanuel Music’s (powerhouse) performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito on Saturday night accomplished both ends for this writer.

Recycling the same opera libretto was an acceptable, even welcome practice throughout the Baroque and Classical eras (eighteenth century audiences, just like twenty-first century ones, enjoyed the familiar), and Mozart’s Tito was just one of about forty “covers” of Metastasio’s tale of passion versus honor in ancient Rome. Whether it’s due to Mozart’s music or simply his name on the score, mention of those other operas is mostly limited to the preconcert lectures, program booklets and liner notes that accompany the hundreds of performances and recordings of Mozart’s version.

A few curious scholars and conductors have resuscitated other versions of Tito. Comparisons are inevitable, and in some cases justify the judgment of history. In Mozart’s score, Tito’s aria “Del Più Sublime Soglio” becomes an ideal introduction for the titular character. Mozart uses a lilting vocal line and lush harmonies for the emperor’s first aria, where Tito describes generosity as the sole joy amidst the burdens of power:

In Gluck’s hands, the same text suffers from a pacing rhythm and a repetitive, at times whiny melody. Mozart’s music makes Tito seem superhuman, while Gluck orchestrates him as a sap:

Yet those “other” Tito’s also reveal some great “new” music, for example Gluck’s simultaneously raging and forlorn “Come Potesti O Dio,” depicting the old adage about “Hell Hath No Fury, etc.” in a section of Metastasio’s libretto which poet Caterino Mazzolà saw fit to excise from Mozart’s opera:

In other cases, stacking Mozart’s well-known music next to these now forgotten musical doppelgangers offers a different lens onto each of the characters. Galuppi’s minor key and palpitating strings cast “Ah Perdona Al Primo Affetto” as an urgent plea for forgiveness from one lover to another:

while the resourceful team of Mozart and Mazzolà combine this apology with the romantic aria “Amo Te Solo” and sculpt a duet of reconciliation and utterly beautiful eroticism:

Caldara was the first composer to set Metastasio’s text, and he imagines the librettist’s chorus of thanks to god and country in a solemn light [just click "Play" below]:

while by Mozart’s time, those friends, Romans and countrymen are all feelin’ the spirit:

“Parto Ma Tu Ben Mio” is a young man’s parting words just before the woman he loves sends him to assassinate his ruler and friend (that’s opera!). Mozart’s mixture of  infatuation, regret and frustration, with a clarinet offering commentary in the background, have made his treatment one of the most famous opera arias of all time:

On the other end of historical recognition, Galuppi’s “Parto” zeroes in on the simply pathetic aspect of this scenario, and makes due with just strings. Emotionally and musically Galuppi’s aria is much less complex than Mozart’s, but in terms of lyrical, stylized sadness, it works just fine:

Gluck’s “Parto” features a halting rhythm set to a cresting harmonic accompaniment.  This person is just plain scared; it’s perhaps the most “realistic” characterization of all:

Wikipedia tells us that Mysliveček set “Parto” as a duet, but without the time and resources of a full-time academic, that’s all the experience with Mysliveček’s “Tito” available to potential listeners.  It’s still far more attention than many other composers receive.

There’s always Mozart. There’s literally always Mozart.

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One thought on “Mozart the Monopolist, and the Tough Breaks of “Tito”

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