La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart's final Italian opera, was composed in a hurried 18 days for the coronation of Leopold II in September 1791. In presenting Leopold, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, with an opera about Titus, the Emperor of the Pagan Roman Empire, Mozart was not so subliminally advising the current Emperor to emulate the actions of the earlier Emperor, specifically, his clemency to his enemies. Since Titus became Emperor after suppressing the first Jewish Revolt by destroying Jerusalem, killing more than a million Jews, enslaving more than a million more Jews, and dispersing most of the rest of Palestine's Jews throughout the Empire, his reputation for clemency is at first hard to fathom. As it turns out, Titus' reputation is based on having spared his best friend from death after an attempted assassination. Because Leopold II died in 1792, history does not record what form his clemency might have taken had the Austrians under his leadership succeeded in defeating the French in the Napoleonic Wars.
Be all that as it may, Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito remains far and away his least popular mature Italian opera. While performances and recordings of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte are common as war, Tito is as rare as peace. As this superlative 2006 recording led by René Jacobs amply demonstrates, the reasons are easy to see. First, the characterization is stiff and awkward: none of the six main characters is remotely believable in either actions or words. Second, the music is stiff and awkward: none of the work's arias, duos, and ensembles have the passion, beauty, or energy of Mozart's great Italian operas. Third, Tito has entirely too many recitatives -- and most of them are entirely too long. In attempting to cut a three-act work to fit into two acts, Mozart and his librettists have included far too much semi-sung exposition and thereby destroyed the drive of the drama.
Jacobs' La Clemenza di Tito is inarguably far and away one of the best recordings of the work ever made. And, like the reasons for the work's failure, the reasons for Jacobs' success are easy to see, or, rather, to hear. First, Jacobs' cast is excellent not only as singers but as actors. While the characters themselves remain aural statues, Mark Padmore as Tito, Alexandrina Pendachanska as Vitellia, and especially Bernarda Fink as Sesto make them very attractive statues. Second, Jacobs' conducting of the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS-Kammerchor is superb not only as an accompanist but as a dramatist. While Mozart's music itself remains the aural equivalent of a frieze, Jacobs' supple and fluent leadership makes it a very appealing frieze. Third, Jacobs and his singers do everything humanely possible to make the recitatives effective, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, involves making the words and their meanings as clear as possible. Captured with unsurpassed clarity by Harmonia Mundi, Jacobs' performance makes the best case possible for La Clemenza di Tito, and anyone who's always wanted to like the work is strongly advised to check out this recording.