Written by Reinder Pols
at La Monnaie, Belgium

Mozart wrote his last opera seria for the coronation of the King of Bohemia only three months before his death in December 1791. Reinder Pols explains the background of an opera that was popular in its time and was only rediscovered in the late 20th century.

LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, directed by Ivo van Hove at La Monnaie

The romantic image of Mozart ending his days in dire poverty does not entirely square with the reality. He may well have owed money on his death, owing partly to medical costs incurred for his wife and to an extravagant lifestyle and various gambling debts, but his income was certainly not inadequate at that time. If his financial situation was very changeable in the last years of his life, his creativity certainly didn’t suffer as a result. As well as scores of minuets and ‘deutsche Tänze’ (German dances), various occasional works for the freemasons, several concert arias, lieder, chamber music works and a number of variations for piano, that same year he also produced masterpieces for large orchestrations, like his last concerto for piano, the clarinet concerto, the REQUIEM and two works for the music theatre: the singspiel THE MAGIC FLUTE and the opera seria LA CLEMENZA DI TITO.

In the summer of 1791, several months before his death and while busy working on THE MAGIC FLUTE, Mozart was commissioned to compose an opera to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II on 6 September of that year. Joseph II died in 1790 and was succeeded by Leopold II as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who was also crowned King of Bohemia in Prague in September 1791. Because of the unusually tight deadline, impresario Guardasoni resorted to an existing and tried and tested libretto, namely LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, originally written by Metastasio for Antonio Caldara in 1734, and later set to music by some forty composers and now turned into a new libretto for Mozart by the Saxon court poet Caterino Mazzolà. Mozart did not write the recitatives himself, but was probably assisted by his pupil Süssmayr. 

Mozart died three months after the première. Though not hailed as an overwhelming success at court, the public loved LA CLEMENZA DI TITO and for decades it remained one of his most popular operas. However, it fell into oblivion until some thirty years ago when it was rediscovered – not least thanks to Karl-Ernst’s and Ursel Herrmann’s dazzling production at La Monnaie in 1982 – and included in the repertoire again.