For centuries, opera has been a vivid showcase for stories depicting great characters from world history. Opera also has a well-established affinity for the portrayal of nasty villains. So, historical operas often feature vivid characters from the ranks of history's most notorious most evil doers -- but not always, as seen in Mozart's final opera, La Clemenza di Tito.
The first historical opera of them all may well have been Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, and it does feature a couple of ruthless villains -- the unprincipled usurper Poppea and her new husband, Nero, the notorious Roman emperor who proverbially "fiddled" while Rome burned. Yet the opera portrays those characters in a soft light, through some famously sensuous and remarkably beautiful music. It seems that in Monteverdi's day, such villainy wasn't universally abhorred -- at least not by opera goers. And that's the key.
As opera developed, in the centuries following Monteverdi, historical stories became more and more prevalent. In the 18th century in particular, operas often portrayed history's real life leaders, such as kings and emperors.
But many of the people who paid for those operas, for their own entertainment, were ... kings and emperors! So composers and librettists had to hedge their bets a little, or risk offending their employers.
Perhaps as a result, there are plenty of operas in which historical tyrants start out as reprehensible characters, but wind up seeming, well, not so bad after all. One example is Handel's Tamerlano. That one depicts the 14th-century ruler Timur. He's known, among other things, as one of history's most vicious conquerors. But while the opera does give him plenty of unsavory moments, by the end he realizes how wrong he was, and the audience gets a poignant glimpse at his gentler side.
Yet there were often occasions when even that sort of soft pedaling was considered chancy. That may be what happened with Mozart and La Clemenza di Tito. The opera was composed for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. For such a historic event, a story rooted in history was obviously appropriate. But when it came to the precise subject matter, Mozart took no chances.
He agreed to a 60-year-old text by the prolific librettist Pietro Metastasio. It had already been set by more than 40 composers -- proof that it wouldn't cause offense to royals and aristocrats. The story doesn't bypass evil deeds altogether; the leading lady is a character willing to burn down an entire city simply to avenge her rather questionable "honor."
The opera's hero, on the other hand, is the Roman Emperor Titus, and even in real life he was a ruler more famous for virtue than villainy. Once, he reportedly said, "It is impossible for me to be insulted or abused, as I do nothing worthy of censure." Mozart made sure to uphold that point of view. In the opera, Emperor Tito presses his case more poetically, singing, "If the empire requires a hard heart ... then take the empire from me, and give me another heart."
On World of Opera, Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito comes to us from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris. The stars are tenor Kurt Streit as Emperor Tito, and soprano Karina Gauvin as Vittelia, the woman who'll stop at nothing to become his empress, in a production led by conductor Jérémie Rhorer.