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Susan Graham as Sesto (Clemenza di Tito) [Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
13 May 2008

Ponnelle Clemenza remains a masterpiece

Opera companies should practice historic preservation, keeping certain productions forever in the repertory because of their quality and aesthetic value.

W. A. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito

Above: Susan Graham as Sesto
All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1984 staging of La Clemenza di Tito that returned to the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in May would be an obvious candidate for such preservation.

The opening scene of this production of Mozart’s last opera is sufficient to identify Ponnelle as a major master of his profession. Clemenza, the last significant work of opera seria, is a work mammoth both in its dimensions and its emotions. Ponnelle’s recreation of first-century Rome at its colossal height brings to mind Winckelmann’s characterization of the art of antiquity as “noble simplicity and calm grandeur.”

CLEMENZA_Iveri_as_Vitellia_.pngTamar Iveri as Vitellia
Ponnelle’s Rome — it fills the Met’s mammoth stage — is grand in its columns, arches, balconies and stairs, and if a certain amount of decay is evident, these fissures are only a reflection of the dysfunctional figures in this drama of treachery and treason, all more interesting as character studies than as living humans. For in opera seria it is the drama within that is of the essence, and arias are largely confessional. Play the first scene of Don Giovanni on an empty stage in street clothes and you have more absorbing action than in the entire three hours of Clemenza.

Happily Ponnelle understood this and designed sets and beautifully painted, luminous scrims that are drained of color and serve as a perfect environment for the half a dozen ill-focused people all seemingly in love with an inappropriate — or unavailable — mate.

Only recently has Clemenza, written for the 1791 Prague coronation of Joseph II of Austria as emperor of Bohemia, come to be regarded as worthy of staging. For over a century, scholars apologized for the opera — a by-product of The Magic Flute and the Requiem, a work written in great haste. Some accounts assert that Mozart composed it in 18 days and assigned the recitatives to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The fact that opera seria was already out of fashion when Mozart wrote Clemenza further complicates its place in history.

CLEMENZA_Vargas_as_Tito_151.pngRamón Vargas as Tito
All this was no problem for Ponnelle, who recognized the quality of the music that Mozart had written and took his cues from the score in making the opera an impressing experience on stage. For the revival the Met came up with an ideal cast that — no matter what the title says — was headed by Susan Graham, who — now in her late 40s — remains the reigning mezzo of her generation. As Sesto, Graham’s combination of vocal and acting gifts — plus her stature of almost six feet — makes it difficult to see this best friend — and almost assassin — of Emperor Tito as the weak-willed courtier described in opera guides.

Magnificent in everything she does, Graham stole the show in the packed performance on May 6 and no doubt did much to inspire those on stage with her. (For the Prague premiere castrato Domenico Bedini was brought from Italy to sing Sesto.)

CLEMENZA_Grant_Murphy_Iveri.pngHeidi Grant Murphy (Servilia), Tamar Iveri (Vitellia) and Anke Vondung (Annio)
Ramón Vargas, the Met’s Rodolfo of the season, brought baritone heft to his portrayal of Tito, whose ability to forgive even those who would have killed him gives the opera its title.

Most difficult figure in the cast is Vitellia, the rotten apple without whom there would be no story. (The worm at her core was planted there, of course, by Tito, who unjustly usurped power from Vitellia’s father.) For Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri the changing moods of the woman determined to kill Tito if she could not marry him were handled with enviable ease.

Servilia and Annio, the innocent young lovers who barely manage to stay out of the way of the machinations of others, were lovingly sung by Heidi Grant Murphy and Anke Vondung. Bass Oren Gradus brought dignity to Tito‘s advisor Publio.

Responsible for much of the success of the revival was the conducing of England’s Harry Bicket, a young man seen with increasing frequency in opera houses and with orchestras on this side of the Atlantic. Bicket, a leading authority on early opera, seemed to relish Mozart’s extensive use of the clarinet in the score. (The instrument was still largely alien to classical orchestras in this year of Mozart’s death.)

CLEMENZA_Graham_Vondung_119.pngSusan Graham (Sesto) and Anke Vondung (Annio)
As stage director of the revival Laurie Feldman was marvelously loyal to Ponnelle’s intentions.

The overall excellence of the Met performance sharply contradicts the opinion of Leopold’s Spanish-born throne-mate who at the premiere found Clemenza “German hogwash.” But above all it was Ponnelle’s wisdom in taking the opera at face value rather than trying to make of Clemenza something that it is not who deserves the highest praise of the success of the staging.

Wes Blomster

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