What better place to mount a spirited revival of Mozartʼs La clemenza di Tito than the Estates Theatre in Prague? The composer himself conducted the première there as part of the coronation celebration for Leopold II, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in September 1791. The reception was lukewarm – Empress Maria Luisa complained the next day that “nearly all of us fell asleep” – and La clemenza is still considered one of Mozartʼs lesser efforts. But in the hands of French conductor and opera impresario Marc Minkowski, less is more.

Marc Minkowski and Ambroisine Bré © Hana Smejkalová
Marc Minkowski and Ambroisine Bré
© Hana Smejkalová

Commissioned to write the opera on short notice (less than two months, after Antonio Salieri turned down the job), Mozart was also saddled with a creaky, 60-year-old libretto and a format – opera seria – that was already outdated. The dazzling work that he was doing at the same time on Die Zauberflöte is one of the reasons scholars have long dismissed Clemenza as little more than an opportunity to make some quick cash. Even in Prague, where devoted fans loved every note Mozart ever wrote, Clemenza was staged a total of four times over the past century. 

Minkowski, a Baroque specialist who recently concluded four years as Artistic Director of Mozartwoche Salzburg, precluded many of the format problems by presenting Clemenza as a semi-staged production. It was a convincing demonstration that not much more than a few simple props, costumes and acting skills are needed to carry the storyline, a contrived series of romantic and political complications that give Roman Emperor Tito an opportunity to show he can be a munificent ruler. The recitatives did not bring the action to a grinding halt, and with the orchestra seated onstage, the focus was squarely where it belonged – on the music. 

Lea Desandre and Ambroisine Bré © Hana Smejkalová
Lea Desandre and Ambroisine Bré
© Hana Smejkalová

Minkowskiʼs interpretation of Mozart was at once authoritative and elegant. The sound was compact and tightly disciplined, yet played with a verve and zest that more typically characterizes a Rossini romp. Minkowski took full advantage of every nuance in the score, and liked to linger over beautiful moments. For Sestoʼs “Parto, parto” aria in the first act and Vitelliaʼs “Non più di fiori” in the second, he brought the obbligato accompanists (clarinet and bass clarinet, respectively) to the front of the stage for enchanting duets with the singers. And standing literally next to the singers during other arias, he was able to match their breathing and phrasing to give them exceptional support. 

While the cast was young and relatively unknown, it featured voices perfectly suited to the material and offered some promising performances. In particular, two French newcomers, mezzos Ambroisine Bré (Sesto) and Lea Desandre (Annio) brought lustrous vocals and impressive emotional range to lightweight trouser roles. Latvian soprano Inga Kalna (Vitellia) had some trouble in the lower registers but showed nice flashes of coloratura, and Norwegian tenor Bror Magnus Tødenes sang in rich, warm tones that got stronger as the evening progressed. Soprano Markéta Böhmová (Servilia) and bass Jan Šťáva (Publio), who appear regularly in Mozart productions on Czech stages, added local flair. 

Markéta Böhmová © Hana Smejkalová
Markéta Böhmová
© Hana Smejkalová

Had the National Theatre Orchestraʼs name not appeared in the program, it would have been easy to mistake the group for a dedicated period ensemble. Under Minkowskiʼs baton, the playing was smart and enthusiastic, respectful without being restrained, and brimming with bright colors throughout. Several of the players stood out – Luca Oberti maintaining Minkowskiʼs uptempo pace on fortepiano, and Jan Hejhal (clarinet) and Hanuš Axman (bass clarinet) in the duets with the singers. And the National Theatre Chorus was riveting, even when Minkowski relocated the women to the aisles in the audience for a brief passage. 

A lengthy essay in the program book makes a persuasive case for Mozart being interested in Clemenza long before he got the commission, perhaps even having parts written or sketched out in advance. Either way, Minkowski made an even stronger case onstage for an overlooked work that has much more depth than is commonly thought, and in the hands of a master offers an innovative and entertaining night at the opera, Maria Luiaʼs somnolence notwithstanding.