If you think of a tortured operatic love triangle, you’ll most likely come up with a scenario where the soprano (occasionally a mezzo) is caught between the tenor and thebaritone; sometimes the latter changes to a mezzo. Tosca, Aida and Carmen come to mind.
Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito offers viewers a different sort of love triangle, in which the young Roman patrician Sesto – a male role but sung by a mezzo-soprano – has pledged his loyalty both to Vitellia, daughter of the former Roman emperor, and to the current emperor, Tito.
That latter connection is based in deep friendship, but it’s more than personal. In dedicating himself to Tito, Sesto gives his loyalty to the Roman Empire and all it represents.
Unlike more frequently performed Mozart operas such as Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro, La clemenza di Tito is an opera seria, an 18th-century form whose plots drew on ancient history or mythology. A late work in Mozart’s career and composed for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia, Tito was intended to draw a parallel between Leopold and the opera’s title character, who rejects thoughts of revenge and instead closes the opera on a note of forgiveness and brotherhood.
The work’s most dramatically involving character isn’t Tito, though, but rather Sesto, whose love for Vitellia drives the action forward. At the start of the opera, Vitellia is furious that Tito, instead of marrying her and elevating her to the throne, intends another as his queen. Making Sesto swear to avenge her honour by killing Tito, Vitellia toys with his affections to keep him on track.
“He’s a young man caught in a difficult situation,” admits American mezzo Isabel Leonard, who makes her Canadian Opera Company and role debut as Sesto, opposite the Tito of Michael Schade and the Vitellia of Keri Alkema.
“Being a loyal, honest man is what causes him so much distress. He has to find a way both to love Vitellia and to do her bidding against the man he so admires, even when he realizes that she’s using him to her own ends rather than out of love.”
Leonard’s also been exploring how Sesto can stay faithful to a woman who treats him badly and asks him to go against his own nature by murdering his good friend.
“I have to find something true and honest in why he returns to Vitellia, and I think it lies in the desire and incredible strength one has when one hopes for love. It’s a force stronger than we realize, one that always sees the good in the beloved, no matter how potentially abusive the relationship might appear to others.”
Leonard began studying the role of Sesto last summer while singing Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro) at Glyndebourne; as if she weren’t busy enough, she was also learning Miranda in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest (and sang it in December at the Metropolitan Opera) as well as Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (for spring performances at the Met).
In addition to performing Zerlina and Dorabella, Leonard’s sung plenty of Cherubinos in her career. Among her other trouser roles is Ruggiero in Handel’s Alcina.
“Ironically,” she adds, “the men I’ve played are often more mentally complicated than the women, and that’s true of Sesto as well.
“While I have to learn the male physicality for each role, I don’t like to start from the outside and work in. Instead, I think it’s worth getting into each character’s head and letting the physicality emerge from that.
“When I first began playing male roles, I made myself stand like I thought a guy should; I ended up feeling stiff and rigid.
“I guess I thought that men weren’t as fluid or physical as women, but that’s not true. Working with that viewpoint limited my ability to bring different physical colours to the roles; my body was constricted.”
Then she started watching the men around her and realized “how they physicalize their feelings throughout the day. Sometimes they’re tired, sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re angry, and their bodies change with each mood.”
“That was a wonderful discovery for me. I learned to forgive myself if I thought that, in a male role, I was sitting in too effeminate a fashion. “OK,’ I said to myself, ‘he’s having a feminine moment.’ Now I don’t clamp down on what my character wants to do.
“Sometimes it’s hard to shake that masculinity at the end of a performance and get back into my own femininity,” she laughs.