Heroism or lack thereof in La clemenza di Tito (title character)
I love it when an aria from my favourite piece is dissected in a masterclass. I love it even more when watching it crystalises something that had not been clear to me before. In this case we have a young man who launches into Tito’s big aria with Imperial aplomb. Promptly, JDD stops him and tells him to switch to Gounod. Haha! He’s so horrified: was I that bad? Bluntly put, yes. To save face, he admits he hadn’t sung Mozart before. Well, maybe begin with a less fiendish Mozart aria then? He could’ve tried Ah, se fosse... for a start. All Mozartean without being quite so mad.
But this post isn’t meant a bash young singer. By all means, I love it when singers of all levels pay attention to Tito arias. This post is about who Tito is and who he isn’t. The singer’s biggest fault is that this isn’t clear to him. To be fair, it’s not easy to find Tito.
Tito is an Emperor, yes, but not a Napoleon-type Emperor. So none of the Imperial (with capital I) authority here. As usual, the answer is in the libretto:
Se all’impero, amici Dei,
Necessario è un cor severo;
O togliete a me l’impero,
O a me date un altro cor.
The assassination attempt and the revelation of who was behind it has properly humbled him: my heart isn’t harsh. If that’s what’s needed [to rule] rather take the responsibility away from me or give me a different heart altogether. He’s a softie. And then the B part develops on this, shows us his true (soft) self.
This very masterclass exercise proves it’s worth thinking about the whole character arc even when studying just one aria. Tito has spent the entire opera trying to reach out to his less than Imperial friends and become a mortal. Se all’impero is the moment where he feels he has achieved this. After having been betrayed as deeply as possible he still – and (apparently) for real – finds it in his heart to practice what he has been preaching. He lets go of his knee-jerk reactions – remember, he does not have models of Enlightened Emperors to guide him; for the time Metastasio came up with the libretto this was still quite a modern approach – and reconnects with himself1. It’s admirable to have ideals but it’s actually very hard to live up to them. Also, heroism might look quite differently than one has imagined.
- I think this might be a good turning point for singers to give Tito some solidity after all the theoretical musing we’ve seen him indulge in before. ↩