S’altro che lagrime from La clemenza di Tito, K. 621
Zeffirettti lusinghieri from Idomeneo, K. 366
February 16, 2020: Ying Fang, soprano; 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.
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—who shortened it by one-third and manipulated almost all of Metastasio’s texts so that there would be ensembles and finales in addition to solo arias.
The plot, typical of opera seria (eighteenth-century dramatic opera, usually on a classical subject), concerns Titus (Tito), benevolent Roman emperor, whose plan to marry someone other than Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor, causes her to plot his demise. She enlists Sextus (Sesto)—who is Tito’s friend but hopelessly in love with her—to burn down the entire city of Rome and thus roast Tito alive. Meanwhile, Tito’s choice of consort has shifted for political reasons from Berenice to Servilia, Sesto’s sister, but when he learns that Servilia and his friend Annio are in love he declares he will not come between them. He now chooses Vitellia, but she doesn’t find out until it is too late to stop the deadly plot. Miraculously, Tito survives the fire, but Sesto is condemned to death for treason. Vitellia, unable to bear the guilt, confesses her part in the scheme, and Tito, who has granted Sesto clemency, now does the same for Vitellia.
“S’altro che lagrime” (If nothing more than tears), a gentle minuet-like arietta, is sung by Servilia in Act II as she comes upon Vitellia crying and warns her that her tears are not enough to save Sesto from death. Servilia doesn’t realize that Vitellia is crying in guilty anguish over having brought about his death sentence.
Stepping back in time to Mozart’s first big break in opera, in the summer of 1780 he received a commission to write an opera seria for the Electoral Court of Munich. Elector Karl Theodor’s establishment, having recently moved there from Mannheim, boasted one of the finest opera companies and probably the finest orchestra in Europe. Mozart had encountered many of these musicians in Mannheim during his travels several years earlier and he expended his greatest efforts to write a worthy opera.
Salzburg cleric Giovanni Battista Varesco condensed Antoine Danchet’s earlier five-act libretto, Idomenée, into three acts, which Mozart—already exhibiting his exceptional dramatic sense of timing and theatrical effect—had to prune severely. Mozart wrote some of his most glorious music for Idomeneo, rè di Creta (Idomeneus, king of Crete), and the premiere, which Mozart conducted in Munich on January 29, 1781, was well received. Yet despite Mozart’s considerable innovations, opera seria was a dying art form, and Idomeneo disappeared from the repertoire, remaining unappreciated until the twentieth century.
The story of Idomeneus, the Greek chieftain returning home after the Trojan war, parallels the Biblical story of Jephtha: in return for his deliverance from a horrendous storm, he vows to Poseidon that he will sacrifice the first living being he encounters when he goes ashore, only to find that this is his own son Idamantes. In Italian fashion, the libretto averts a tragic ending by having Poseidon decree that Idomeneus abdicate his throne in favor of Idamantes, who is to marry Ilia. She is the one he loves, though she had earlier given him up to her rival Electra as Idomeneus maneuvered to avoid sacrificing his son.
Ilia sings “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” (Gently caressing zephyrs) at the outset of Act III, tenderly, exquisitely asking the wind to carry her thoughts of love to Idamantes. Graceful fast notes represent her message flying on the breeze. The middle section in this ternary form brings musical contrast, though it expresses the same basic idea even if it is now the plants and flowers that are to relay her love.
© Jane Vial Jaffe
Texts and Translations
S’altro che lagrime
Per lui non tenti,
Tutto il tuo piangere
A questa inutile
pietà che senti
oh, quanto è simile
If nothing but tears you
expend on him,
all your weeping
will not help.
To this useless
pity that you feel,
oh how similar
If nothing, etc.
deh volate al mio tesoro,
e gli dite ch’io l’adoro,
che mi serbi il cor fedel.
E voi piante, e fior sinceri,
che ora innaffia il pianto amaro,
dite a lui che amor più raro
Mai vedeste sotto al ciel.
Zeffiretti lusinghieri, etc.
—Giovanni Battista Varesco
after Antoine Danchet
oh fly to my beloved,
and tell him I adore him,
and to keep his heart true to me.
And you plants and tender flowers,
which my bitter tears now water,
tell him that no rarer love
you have ever seen beneath the sky.
Gentle zephyrs, etc.