'La Clemenza di Tito': Mozart, the Colosseum and Yugoslavia?
Just back from the fleshpots of Los Angeles (the hard-working fleshpots, I should say), I had the treat of night at the opera – the final reward for some programme notes I wrote for the English National Opera sixth months ago. The chosen gig was Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) at the London Coliseum.
I hadn’t actually seen it or heard it before – and really chose it because I inferred (correctly but blindly) that it was about the Roman emperor Titus (79 – 81 CE, son of Vespasian and honorand of the famous arch in the Forum). It proved to be intriguingly weird in all kinds of way. The singers did a wonderful job, but a lot of the music sounded to us more like “School of Mozart” than “Mozart”. And the story line was about as implausibly convoluted as opera seria can get.
It featured, on the one hand, a scheming Vitellia, daughter of the short lived emperor Vitellius, who wants to become empress of Rome – to avenge her father’s fall from power (marriage to Titus being the quickest route). And, on the other, the emperor himself, wanting a consort to replace his beloved Jewish Berenice, whom he has just sent away to assuage popular Roman opinion who would only accept a native Roman wife for their emperor. The search is predictably dogged by rival suitors, covert plots and outright rebellion in the city. To all of these adversities Titus responds by blessing his rivals and pardoning the disloyal. Hence the title.
But the fascination for a classicist was the set – on either side of the curtain. The performance was a revival of a David McVicar production which turned Titus’ court into an austere, if somewhat chilling, amalgam of the Ottoman and the Japanese palace (Topkapi meets the Chrysanthemum throne). We couldn’t decide if the long skirted, broad belted imperial bodyguard were meant to evoke janissaries or samurai. It was in this elegant, uncluttered imperial surrounding that Titus repeatedly forgave his various enemies and rivals.
But I wondered if McVicar had ever reflected on the ambience in which the Coliseum audience would be watching the show. For the Coliseum, built early in the twentieth century (my illustration is an early postcard), beats any theatre in London for its extravagantly Roman design. Taking its cue from what we generally now call the Colosseum, the interior is festooned with references to Rome and the Roman arena – chariots of lions, laurel wreaths, gladiatorial weapons.
And who was responsible for building and opening the (original) Colosseum? None other than Titus, of course. So on either side of the curtain, we had two very different versions of Titus’ image. On the stage, the calm and forgiving ruler – too forgiving for his own good. On the audience side, the bloodthirsty monarch, who presided over those murderous games (take a look at the Martial’s book of verses commemorating its opening if you want to know how murderous) without so far as we know a jot of clemency.
But what was it all about?
An excellent essay in the programme did very well in trying to relate it to eighteenth-century debates on kingship and “enlightened despotism”. Was the emperor above the law? Was Titus right or wrong to pardon a conspirator who had actually been formally convicted by due process of law?
I couldn’t help thinking that there was a very obvious target in one of the most famous (in Mozart’s day) works of Roman philosophy – Seneca’s On Clemency, a quotation from which featured in the programme. Seneca was the tutor of the emperor Nero and wrote this treatise to his pupil advocating the use of clemency and forgiveness in imperial policy (strikingly unsuccessful in its short term objectives, it must be said). The whole plot of La Clemenza could be seen as a riposte to this. For here Titus’ only weapon is forgiveness – and it leads to one disaster after another (from personal unhappiness to the burning of the city). Maybe, we were being asked to reflect, Titus just once should have said “No pardons today”. A total capacity to forgive is, in other words, no less destructive than the reverse.
Quite what the rest of a largely enthusiastic audience made of it, I’m not sure. Things weren’t helped by the fact that for most of us over 40 the Italian form of Titus – that is, Tito – has a whole set of other political resonances.
In the men’s loo, my husband overheard an unsettling snippet of conversation: “I don’t quite see how this fits into the rest of the history of Yugoslavia”.
He thinks it was a joke.