Just a few months before he would die, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito. It was first performed in Prague in September 1791, to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in the same year. That was three weeks before the premiere of one of Mozart's master pieces Die Zauberflöte and three months before his death.
The story evolves around Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Performed by a tenor, Titus has to choose an Empress. Soprano Vitellia is infuriated when she finds out not to be the chosen one. Vitellia orders Sextus (soprano/mezzosoprano) to kill Titus, which he is willing to do out of sheer love for this beautiful lady. But Sextus also happens to be one of Titus' close friends.
The assassination is planned, but when fire is set to the Capitol, friendship wins it over the girl. Sextus tries to convince his partners in crime not to burn down the Capitol but he is too late. Luckily Titus survives the attack but Sextus admits his deed to the emperor to clear his conscience. The Senate consequently convicts him to the death penalty. To protect Vitellia, Sextus refuses to tell Titus his motives. But then Vitellia, who in the meantime has become Empress after the withdrawal of her rival, confesses the whole issue to Titus. Instead of punishing all traitors, the Emperor shows emperial dignity and forgiveness by setting them all free: the Clemency of Titus.
Most melodies of La Clemenza di Tito are short. The vocals are far from spectacular and even the march in the second stage is moderate. Experts think the musical quality of this opera is relatively low because Mozart tried to hurry the composition and let his apprentice Süssmayr compose parts of it. Mozart wanted to earn money fast while he felt his end coming and wanted to finish the all-important Requiem.
In La Clemenza di Tito it is Vitellia who dominates, but that is because of the character. The melodramatic situation makes it a melodramatic role. This drama reaches its summit when she gets to hear that she is elected empress anyway, just a minute after ordering Sextus to kill the emperor.
The first stage of this two-stage opera is ended by a combination of drama and music. Firstly Sesto in a recitative accompagnato (a style in which the text is declaimed in the rhythm of natural speech with slight melodic variation), not knowing if to choose his girl or his friend. Then more and more characters are slowly added to the act, with the Capitol burning in the background. The crowd is screaming and expressing disgust, and when the music is fading, the lovers start to realize what they have caused. It makes it the most remarkable scene from La Clemenza di Tito.
Since Mozart has written so many operas, La Clemenza di Tito has been compared to his other works a lot. The lyric arias are a lot like Don Ottavio's in Don Giovanni, which is no coincidence since both were composed with the same singer in mind. The combination between vocals and clarinet in Sextus' Parto, parto reminds strongly of the special relationship of Papageno and his flute in Die Zauberflöte.
The libretto of La Clemenza di Tito is by Caterino Mazzola, after Pietro Metastasio's original. It was very popular in the Romantic Period, which is just after its issue to around 1890. But then it faded into anonymity. Until recently it was considered one of Mozart's failures. An important reason might be that opera seria (rhetorical genre in a strict style with a message to send across to the listeners) was not understood properly for a long time. Since the recent positive revaluation of the genre, Mozart's opera seria is appreciated again.