It has long been the fashion, even among the hardiest scholars and most discerning operaphiles, to view Mozart’s “Clemenza di Tito,” revived at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening in a clean, stately 1984 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production, as an anomalous also-ran. That’s more or less accurate. Completed in 1791, just months before Mozart’s death, “Clemenza” was written to serve an emperor’s coronation and to earn an unusually handsome commission.
Most important, Mozart made the work to suit his employer’s demands and taste, rather than in accordance with the individual genius of his three seminal operas written to Da Ponte librettos, or the enigmatic whimsy of “Die Zauberflöte.” In having the poet Caterino Mazzolà trim and rework portions of the oft-set Metastasio libretto he was assigned for the occasion, Mozart subtly bent the rigid rules of opera seria without breaking them.
The basic plot is elementary: A spurned princess commands her devoted lover to kill his best friend, the Roman emperor; that ruler, having survived the assassination attempt, is inspired by the princess’s eventual confession of guilt and forgives all trespasses. A secondary romance plays out alongside the main thread, lending the characters nuance through their interweaving. Still, in intent “Clemenza” is an ethical homily: small wonder that its emphasis on regal magnanimity and moral rectitude would be deemed fit for an inaugural event.
An analysis of “Clemenza” in a recent essay by Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times intimates that the opera is richer and stranger than its reputation suggests. If Friday’s fine rendition ultimately failed to illuminate heretofore unsuspected depths, it handily confirmed that even in a rush job with recitative handed off to a protégé, Mozart could not fail to be Mozart.
In an alert, engaged performance with a well-balanced ensemble, what’s best in “Clemenza” cuts to the quick with the elegance and efficacy found in all of Mozart’s finest works. Happily, it was just that kind of account that Harry Bicket, an English conductor closely associated with early-music groups and period-instrument players, elicited from the Met cast, chorus and orchestra.
Intentionally or not, the cast provided its own ambiguous shadings. Giuseppe Filianotibrought to Tito obsessive eyes, nervous intensity and a limber, pinging lyric tenor stressed only occasionally by its labors. As Sesto, Elina Garanca sang with her expected authority and luster. Composed almost to the point of aloofness in the first act, she lashed out at Tito in the second, to genuinely gripping effect.
Though singing with less than her customary volume, Barbara Frittoli compensated with flamboyant characterization as the manipulative princess Vitellia. Lucy Crowe, making her Met debut, was a gleaming Servilia, Sesto’s sister. The agile, vivacious Kate Lindseywon hearts and stole scenes as Annio, Sesto’s friend and Servilia’s lover. Oren Gradus was a sturdy Publio, and the Met chorus sang resplendently. The harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire was an expert accompanist. And apart from a few minor knocks and pings, Mr. Bicket drew lithe, stylish work from the orchestra, with particularly lovely contributions by the clarinetist Anthony McGill and the basset horn player James Ognibene.