Sunday, February 22, 2009

Operatic musing: Vitellia, Mozart's Petulently Fascinating Spoiled Princess

A friend of mine got me thinking about Vitellia in Mozart's opera, La clemenza di Tito (the Clemency of Titus), this morning. This is truly one of the most morally repulsive operatic characters around... I'd think that she is topped only by Elettra/Elektra, Salome, and perhaps Katarina Izmailova in terms of unabated nastiness (at least Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco and Puccini's Turandot do have a real change of heart at the end).

The story of La clemenza di Tito concerns the Roman emperor Tito (Titus Vespasianus)'s relentless display of clemency even when betrayed by his childhood best friend, Sesto (Sextus), who is coerced by Vitellia (the daughter of the late emperor Vitellius) into leading a conspiracy to assassinate Tito. The opera was commissioned for the coronation of Leopold II of Bohemia, and so Mozart's hands were tied when it comes to how Tito would be portrayed (he is practically the stand-in for Leopold, and so must come out spotlessly merciful at all cost). To compensate, old Wolfie bestowed upon Sesto and Vitellia some of the most beautiful and dramatically fascinating music he had ever penned.

On the music score, Vitellia is a downright hideous role... She has to be either a lirico-spinto soprano with really great low notes, or a true mezzo-soprano with really good top (the role covers well over 2 full octaves; peaking with a D6 during the Act I trio, Vengo! Aspettate!, and bottoming out with a G3 toward the end of her final rondo, Non piu di fiori).... and is able to cope with a tessitura (average pitch) that is just about as stable as one would expect from a flea-infested yelp-a-delic chihuahua. Having made the role darn near impossible to sing beautifully, Mozart had practically ensured that she is not a role for a beautiful vocalist, but for a dramatically apt singing actress.

How deliciously mean is Vitellia? Check out her two full arias from a 2003 performance of the opera at the Salzburg Festival... performed by the viciously captivating Dorothea Röschmann (Sesto, played here by Vesselina Kasarova, was written for a soprano castrato and is now usually sung by a mezzo-soprano).

The text goes:
"Deh, se piacer mi vuoi, lascia i sospetti tuoi/ Ah, if you want to please me, don't be so suspicious;
Non mi stancar con questo molesto dubitar./ Don't weary me with tiresome doubts.
Chi ciecamente crede, impegna a serbar fede;/ He who believes doubtlessly inspires faith in others;
Chi sempre inganni aspetta, alletta ad ingannar./ He whose faith wavers invites others' betrayal!"

Listen to how Mozart contrasts the two sections of the aria... The woman is a femme fatale from Hades! She sweet-talks him, knowing that he finds her irresistible... and then taunts him when she sees that he has capitulated to her will. It takes some really great acting both theatrically and vocally to pull this thing off without making the woman so thoroughly repulsive as to make it impossible for the audience to sympathize with how Sesto can be so attracted to such a person (after all, she's ordering him to kill his loyal childhood best bud and emperor!). Vitellia has to be both venomous and yet erotically desirable at the same time.

Alas for the conspirators, Tito, having been turned down by both Berenice (the Jewish princess he was smitten with) and Servilia (Sesto's sister, whom he doesn't really love, but wanted to marry in order to elevate his friend's status at court), decided to ask Vitellia to marry him after all. Frantic, Vitellia tried to rescind her order for Tito's assassination, but was too late. Rome is burned and Sesto, in the confusion of the scene, had stabbed someone resembling Tito, but isn't. Now that order has been restored and his conspirators had given him up, Sesto resolves to confess his part in the plot without revealing Vitellia's hand in it. Realizing that her boyfriend is more loyal to her than she had ever meant to return the favor, Vitellia finds herself in a moral dilemma.

Her second aria, 'Non piu di fiori' (which constitutes the climax of the opera), is actually explained in the recitative that leads into it. The aria itself only amplifies the sense of distress Vitellia is in as described by the recitative, which goes:
"Ecco il punto, o Vitellia, d'esaminar la tua costanza: avrai valor che basti a rimirar esangue il Sesto tuo fedel? Sesto, che t'ama più della vita sua? Che per tua colpa divenne reo? Che t'ubbidì crudele? Che ingiusta t'adorò? Che in faccia a morte sì gran fede ti serba, e tu frattanto non ignota a te stessa, andrai tranquilla al talamo d'Augusto? Ah, mi vedrei sempre Sesto d'intorno; e l'aure, e i sassi temerei che loquaci mi scoprissero a Tito. A' piedi suoi vadasi il tutto a palesar. Si scemi il delitto di Sesto, se scusar non si può, col fallo mio. D'impero e d'imenei, speranze, addio."

(Now is the moment, O Vitellia, to test your constancy: will you have enough courage to see your faithful Sesto dead? Sesto, who loves you more than his own life, who you talked into committing a crime, who obeyed you, cruel one, and adored you, unjust as you are; who in the face of death remains true to you, while you, with all these knowledge, calmly go to Caesar's bridal bed? Ah, I would always be haunted by Sesto and the fear that the breezes and the stones might betray me to Titus. Let me go and confess all at his feet. Let Sesto's crime, If it cannot be forgiven, be lessened through my guilt. Ah farewell, hopes of dominion and marriage!)
So, Vitellia sort of has a conscience after all. Though her 'repentance' is caused by her own fear of future betrayal (perhaps by other conspirators who had eluded captivity) and that the death of Sesto would haunt her conscience.... and not from any love she has for him or because it is the right thing to do. And if there is any trace of remorse about having masterminded a plot to kill a (supposedly) benevolent ruler, I have yet to detect it... This woman is really a piece of work! She is so self-centered through and through that even when she does the right thing, it is still done for a selfish reason.

Though I have to give her credit since she is aware of what Sesto had sacrificed in his love for her (so she isn't quite a sociopath... just supremely spoiled and self-centered). And that she realizes what the mortal consequences of her confession would be and still does it is a plus... There are many people who wouldn't go through with it.

The actual aria:
"Non più di fiori vaghe catene/ No longer shall Hymen descend
Discenda Imene ad intrecciar./ to weave fair garlands of flowers.
Stretta fra barbare aspre ritorte/ Bound in harsh, cruel chains,
Veggo la morte ver me avanzar./ I see death advances on me.
Infelice! qual orrore! Ah, di me che si dirà?/ Wretched me! How horrible! What will be said of me?
Chi vedesse il mio dolore, pur avria di me pietà./ But my distress may move him to mercy."
That's really just her reiterating what she thinks the outcome of her confession would be. Hymen is the Greek god of wedding, so the first phrase says that she knows that her wedding (with Tito) would be called off. The second extrapolates further that she might even be executed for her part in the conspiracy. Then she airs some hope for mercy... though the music indicates that she realizes that mercy isn't a hopeful prospect now even when it concerns Tito.

The more she thinks about it, the more hysterical she gets. The obbligato bassett-horn (that really low tuned woodwind playing its own solo along with the soprano's voice) is her thought of Sesto. It coaxes her to do the right thing even as she becomes more and more horrified with the prospect that Tito's mercy had ran out.... And that is one big reason why I don't like it when some singing geniuses come along and manage to sing this beast of an aria beautifully. Vitellia's soul is anything but beautiful. It's a great big moral struggle for her to perform her first decent act in the entire opera. It has to sound ugly (or at the very least distressful) in parts .... especially when repeating the 'I'm done for, I'm hoping for mercy (but I ain't gonna get it)' motif where her vocal line dips deep into the mezzo-soprano range, going as low as a G3 toward the end of it.

It is such a cool thing that Mozart doesn't pause his music after this tour de force semi-mad-scene, but connects it right to the march to the arena (where Sesto is to become lion food), I think. That makes it easier for the soprano to stay in her quivering distressed mode in the final scene. It is just as well made it easier for Vitellia to confess, too..... She doesn't have much time to re-think it after the hysterical ending of her rondo to when the beaten up Sesto is brought in.

I'm not sure how significant 'Non piu di fiori' is in the overall scheme of the opera, but it is the place where a really good singing actress playing Vitellia can earn her very morally off-putting character some sympathy from the audience. It makes the character more intriguing... There is some hope that the Vitellia at the end of the opera has emerged a chastised and more predisposed to morality than the one at the beginning of the work (it takes quite a b*tch to sing that first aria! This character is manipulative as hell!).

Some hope, but not a lot...


Anonymous said...

Great piece of writing on my favorite subject! ;-) Thanks, matie. Now everything we need is someone to write about Tito, and we'll have some good insight into all the principal characters of La Clemenza. :)

Smorg said...

Privet Arashi-san! :o) Thanks a bunch, amica. Man... that would take some real imagination writing up Tito, ay? The dude is rather boring on the paper (though the way Martin Kusej and Michael Schade interpret him in the Salzburg production is quite interesting... and perhaps the Kaufmann/Miller conception at Zurich Opera, too!).

I wish we'd get to see La clemenza di Tito live here at San Diego Opera one of these days, but with the current economy, I doubt that it'll happen. :oP O well, at least we get Der Rosenkavalier next year!

Thanks again for stopping by! :o)

Cynthia Yong said...

thanks for stopping by my blog. and when i stopped by at urs, i'm so happy because i started to like opera when there is this japanese famous opera singer came to our uni and make a performance. She is Ranko Kurano, i wonder if you know about her!!i love the opera vids in ur blogs!

Smorg said...

Hi Cynthia,
Thanks very much for stopping by. :o) I'm delighted to hear that you enjoy opera.

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with Ranko Kurano. We don't get to hear much about singers who sing mostly in Asia, unfortunately. I've only came across a few by accident when browsing through Youtube. You guys have got some seriously good singers there! :o)

Smorg :o)

Georg said...

Hallo Smorgy,

Great description of what is happening in this opera. Though a great fan of Mozart, I have not yet made it to Clemenza. But now, let's try some of YouTube. There seems to be plenty.

Thanks for this very informative post.


Anonymous said...

May I ask for more music analysis articles like this one? You managed to make opera sounds fascinating. Encore, please!

Trip Ennis

Anonymous said...

I'll second Mr Ennis. Encore, bitte!