La clemenza di Tito (English: The Clemency of Titus), K. 621, is an opera seria in two acts composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to an Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio. It was started after the bulk of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), the last opera that Mozart worked on, was already written. The work premiered on 6 September 1791 at the Estates Theatre in Prague.
In 1791, the last year of his life, Mozart was already well advanced in writing Die Zauberflöte by July when he was asked to compose an opera seria. The commission came from the impresario Domenico Guardasoni, who lived in Prague and who had been charged by the Estates of Bohemia with providing a new work to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. The coronation had been planned by the Estates in order to ratify a political agreement between Leopold and the nobility of Bohemia (it had rescinded efforts of Leopold's brother Joseph II to initiate a program to free the serfs of Bohemia and increase the tax burden of aristocratic landholders). Leopold desired to pacify the Bohemian nobility in order to forestall revolt and strengthen his empire in the face of political challenges engendered by the French Revolution. The ceremony was to take place on 6 September; Guardasoni had been approached about the opera in June. No opera of Mozart was more clearly pressed into the service of a political agenda than La clemenza di Tito, in this case to promote the reactionary political and social policies of an aristocratic elite. No evidence exists to evaluate Mozart's attitude toward this, or even whether he was aware of the internal political conflicts raging in the kingdom of Bohemia in 1791.
In a contract dated 8 July, Guardasoni promised that he would engage a castrato "of leading quality" (this seems to have mattered more than who wrote the opera); that he would "have the libretto caused to be written...and to be set to music by a distinguished maestro". The time was tight and Guardasoni had a get-out clause: if he failed to secure a new text, he would resort to La clemenza di Tito, a libretto written more than half a century earlier by Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782).
Metastasio's libretto had already been set by nearly 40 composers; the story is based on the life of Roman Emperor Titus, from some brief hints in The Lives of the Caesars by the Roman writer Suetonius, and was elaborated by Metastasio in 1734 for the Italian composer Antonio Caldara. Among later settings were Gluck's in 1752 and Josef Mysliveček's version in 1774; there would be three further settings after 1791. Mozart was not Guardasoni's first choice. Instead, he approached Antonio Salieri, the most distinguished composer of Italian opera in Vienna and head of the music establishment at the imperial court. But Salieri was too busy, and he declined the commission, although he did attend the coronation.
The libretto was edited into a more useful state by the court poet Caterino Mazzolà. Unusually, in Mozart's personal catalogue of compositions, Mazzolà is credited for his revision with the note that the libretto had been "reworked into a true opera". Mazzolà conflated the original three act libretto into two acts, and none of the original Metastasio arias are from the original middle act. Mazzolà replaced a lot of the dialogue with ensembles and wrote a new act 1 finale, cobbled from lines in the original libretto, which actually presents the uprising, whereas Metastasio merely describes it.
Guardasoni's experience of Mozart's work on Don Giovanni convinced him that the younger composer was more than capable of working on the tightest deadline. Mozart readily accepted the commission given his fee would be twice the price of a similar opera commissioned in Vienna. Mozart's earliest biographer Niemetschek alleged that the opera was completed in just 18 days, and in such haste that the secco recitatives were supplied by another composer, probably Franz Xaver Süssmayr, believed to have been Mozart's pupil. Although no other documentation exists to confirm Süssmayr's participation, none of the secco recitatives are in Mozart's autograph, and it is known that Süssmayr traveled with Mozart to Prague a week before the premiere to help with rehearsals, proofreading, and copying. Mozart scholars have suggested in the past that Mozart had been working on the opera much longer, perhaps since 1789, however all such theories have now been thoroughly refuted in the English-language musicological literature. The opera may not have been written in just 18 days, but it certainly ranks with Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri, Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola as one of the operas written in the shortest amount of time that is still frequently performed today.
It is not known what Leopold thought of the opera written in his honor. Reports that his wife Maria Luisa of Spain dismissed it as una porcheria tedesca (literally in Italian "German swinishness," but most idiomatically translated "A German mess") do not pre-date 1871, in a collection of literary vignettes by Alfred Meissner about the history of Prague purportedly based on recollections of the author's grandfather, who was present for the coronation ceremonies.
The premiere took place a few hours after Leopold's coronation. The role of Sesto was taken by castrato soprano, Domenico Bedini. The opera was first performed publicly on 6 September 1791 at the Estates Theatre in Prague.
The opera remained popular for many years after Mozart's death. It was the first Mozart opera to reach London, receiving its première there at His Majesty's Theatre on 27 March 1806. The cast included John Braham, whose long-time companion Nancy Storace had been the first Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. However, as it was only played once it does not appear to have attracted much interest. As far as can be gathered it was not staged in London again until at the St Pancras Festival in 1957. The first performance at La Scala in Milan was on 26 December 1818. The North American premiere was staged on 4 August 1952 at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood. For a long time, Mozart scholars regarded Tito as an inferior effort of the composer. Alfred Einstein in 1945 wrote that it was "customary to speak disparagingly of La clemenza di Tito and to dismiss it as the product of haste and fatigue," and he continues the disparagement to some extent by condemning the characters as puppets – e.g., "Tito is nothing but a mere puppet representing magnanimity" – and claiming that the opera seria was already a moribund form. However, in recent years the opera has undergone something of a reappraisal. Stanley Sadie considered it to show Mozart "responding with music of restraint, nobility and warmth to a new kind of stimulus".
The opera continues to be popular.
At the Salzburg festival 2017, Peter Sellars directed his interpretation of the opera, as "a vision of peaceful coexistence", "reaching far beyond the historical context", a coproduction with the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Conducted by Teodor Currentzis, it premiered on 27 July 2017 at the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg.
The opera was also performed as part of Glyndebourne's 2017 summer festival .