For the past two seasons, I have been trying something utterly “out of the box” for me: I subscribed to the Lyric Opera in Chicago. I have always had a predilection for choral music, as opposed to, say, symphonic (maybe that is part of “Being Lutheran”?), and now that the home nest is empty, it is time to try new things. Grand opera qualifies on a grand scale.
I confess that many of its subtleties simply escape me. I suspect that it is like letting me taste a particularly fine vintage wine: my palate is not trained to appreciate what I am experiencing. The plots often seem hopelessly contrived, and with all due respect to those who constructed an extraordinary acoustical space at the Lyric (where no singer is ever miked), the seats do seem like prototypes for economy class in airlines. But the combination of solo voices, ensembles, and the orchestra does on occasion break through even to my neophyte ears as sublime.
Then, at the final production for this season, I was caught unawares and seized by the heart. The opera was La clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The program notes informed me that the work was loosely inspired by the life of Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, Roman Emperor from ad 79 to 81.
Ah, yes, that Titus. The one who took over as the Roman general besieging Jerusalem at the end of the First Jewish Revolt (ad 66–73), when the legions elevated his father, Vespasian, to emperor, displacing Vitellius. The one who contrived to break through the city walls and then to burn the Second Temple in the year 70 on the very day on which the Babylonians had done the same to the First Temple in 587/6 bc. To this day, Jews mourn the day as Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the lunar month of Av, reading thereon the book of Lamentations. This Titus then enjoyed a “triumph” back in the capital city; one can visit the Roman Forum to this day and see on the Arch of Titus the plain image of a menorah and other loot being hauled away. This Titus is the inspiration for Mozart’s “Tito.” Just what kind of clemency did Mozart have in mind?
The opera makes no mention of the war in the East. Rather, it tells of another incident in Titus’s life (which may well be fabricated out of whole cloth). It features Vitellia, daughter of the emperor who had been deposed by Tito’s father and who sees Tito as a usurper and feels herself entitled to selection as Tito’s consort (including the title “empress”) as her just deserts. Vitellia manipulates Tito’s dear friend Sesto, who has a hopeless crush on Vitellia, into agreeing to assassinate Tito. However, Sesto botches the job and is apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death by the Roman Senate. Tito must simply sign the death warrant.
Yet Tito is deeply conflicted. He confronts his dear friend in search of some pretext by which to pardon him, but Sesto is so determined to protect Vitellia that he will allow no mitigation of his own guilt. Sesto exits the stage, having confessed both his betrayal of his fealty owed the emperor, and, far worse, that he was a traitor to his friend. Tito is left, warrant in hand, expressing in a recitative the loneliness of supreme leadership:
Where was more insolent disloyalty
I must avenge his disregard
And scorn for my clemency.
Avenge!... Can the heart of Titus
Nurture such feelings?... Well, let him live...
Then do the laws mean nothing?*
And, sure enough, he pardons not merely Sesto, but, when Vitellia confesses her own role as instigator of the plot, he pardons her and all the co-conspirators, and even challenges the Roman gods to sit in judgment on his choice:
Let us see whether others’ perfidy
Or my clemency will be the more enduring.
By the time of the climactic choice, we had been bathed in the incomparable melodies of Mozart for something on the order of two hours. As Tito struggled with what to do, I was transported in mind and spirit to hear another voice—older than Mozart, older even than Titus. I was listening to the prophet Hosea, speaking eight centuries before Titus (and twenty-five before Mozart), as he described Yhwh’s own internal turmoil over what to do with his favorite son:
11 1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. (NRSV, here and throughout)
More than once, I have choked up, as I taught this passage in an Old Testament class. What father (or mother) does not know the agony of watching things go badly, as a beloved child begins to make his or her own choices that have lasting consequences? What parent does not at such moments recall with tenderness—even tears—times of unalloyed affection and trust, when the child was small?
The Old Testament is full of so-called “anthropomorphisms,” by which God is described in human terms. Yet all too often the images that stick in our minds are those of rage and judgment (cf. the recent film Noah). When we dwell on those kinds of Old Testament images, Christians embrace in effect what the church spurned as heresy in fact in the second century: Marcionism, which rejects the Old Testament for its God of Wrath, allegedly distinct from the New Testament God of Love. Careful readers of Hosea know better. Following the struggle within the very Being of God described above, the Lord opts for mercy over judgment:
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
Both God and Mozart’s Tito choose clemency. For a Caesar, that could be risky. Another article that I read on the opera suggested that the head of the Praetorian Guard, Publio, might well have taken Tito’s decision as a sign of weakness and moved to replace him afterward. Such are the risks of mercy, in governance, if not in families. But God still comes down on the side of mercy, and he invites us to do likewise in our own works (or “opera,” for the Latin-minded). He even doubles down on that choice when he sends another Son.
But that’s another opera. We know how that one will turn out. But God only knows when “the fat lady sings.”
George C. Heider serves as Professor of Theology and Chair of the Department of Theology at Valparaiso University.
* All translations from the libretto are taken from www.impresario.ch/libretto/libmozcle_e.htm, accessed on March 31, 2014.