Non più di fiori from La Clemenza di Tito, K. 621
May 19, 2019: Wendy Bryn Harmer, soprano; Inn-Hyuck Cho, basset horn; Ken Noda, piano
In July 1791 Mozart received a “last-minute” commission to compose an opera to celebrate Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia. He had to work quickly in order to complete La clemenza di Tito (The clemency of Titus) by September 6, when it would open at the National Theatre in Prague. Having begun the work in Vienna in late July, Mozart arrived in Prague on August 28 and completed the opera only the day before it opened. After modest successes, La clemenza di Tito experienced a triumphant closing night, which was reported to Mozart back in Vienna on September 30, the day of the premiere of Die Zauberflöte.
Since most of Die Zauberflöte had been written before Mozart left for Prague, La clemenza is often considered his final opera. He died just nine weeks after the premiere of Die Zauberflöte, and critics attached a sort of stigma to La clemenza, possibly because some of the simple recitatives had to be subcontracted owing to time restraints. The fact remains, however, that Mozart admirably fulfilled the demands of eighteenth-century opera seria (serious opera) for dramatic, noble, and virtuosic writing.
More than forty composers had previously set Pietro Metastasio’s libretto for La clemenza di Tito, beginning with Caldara in 1734. For Mozart’s purposes the libretto was adapted by Caterino Mazzolà—“reduced to a proper opera” as Mozart put it—by shortening it by one-third and manipulating almost all of Metastasio’s texts so that there would be ensembles and finales in addition to solo arias.
The plot, typical of eighteenth-century opera seria, concerns Titus (Tito), Roman emperor, whose plans to marry someone else inflame Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor, with jealousy. She involves Sextus (Sesto), who is in love with her, in a plot to kill Tito that goes awry. Sesto is condemned to death, and Vitellia, unable to bear the guilt, confesses her part in the scheme. Tito, however, has granted Sesto clemency and now does the same for Vitellia.
Mozart and Mazzolà reduced the number of Metastasio’s arias to eleven, which include Sesto’s great virtuosic aria with elaborate clarinet obbligato, “Parto, parto” (I go, I go), and Vitellia’s equally renowned showpiece with basset horn obbligato, “Non più di fioro” (No more flowers). Mozart’s friend Anton Stadler came from Vienna especially to play these important solos.
Just before the final two scenes, Vitellia resolves to confess all, knowing not only that she’ll lose Tito and the throne but could also be put to death. Her alternately agitated and sorrowful accompanied recitative: “Ecco il punto, o Vitelia” (Now is the moment, O Vitellia) leads into her powerfully restrained “Non più di fiori.” Famous for its tessitura that is lower than much of the role, the aria unfolds in rondo form, painting a deceptively serene picture—except for a few dazzling outbursts—of a woman who is nevertheless experiencing intense emotions prior to possible death.
© Jane Vial Jaffe