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Rome, A.D. 79. Vitellia, daughter of the deposed Emperor Vitellio, wants the current ruler, Tito (Titus Flavius Savinus Vespasianus), assassinated because he has not chosen her to be his empress, but has instead selected Berenice, daughter of the King of Judea. Vitellia tries to overcome the scruples of her admirer Sesto about committing murder for her sake. Sesto’s friend Annio reveals that Berenice will not be empress after all. Vitellia’s ambitions for the throne revive, and she asks Sesto to delay his plan. Annio reminds Sesto of his own desire to marry Sesto's sister, Servilia, and urges him to ask Tito for permission.
The populace hails Tito, who declares he will help the survivors of the recent eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii. Annio and Sesto learn that the emperor now wishes to marry Servilia. Diplomatically, Annio assures Tito he welcomes the union. The emperor says the chief joy of power lies in the opportunity to help others. Annio informs Servilia that the emperor wishes to marry her and the distraught young couple reaffirm their love for each other.
Publio, a guard, shows Tito a list of those who have spoken disloyally. Tito is inclined to forgive them. The discussion is interrupted by Servilia, who confesses her prior commitment to Annio. Tito generously relinquishes all claims to her. Vitellia, still believing that the emperor plans to marry Servilia, again urges Sesto to strike him down. He declares that her wish is his command. When Vitellia learns that Tito is now planning to crown her as empress, she calls after Sesto to stop him, but it is too late.
Sesto, who has set fire to the Capitol and led a rebellion, trembles with remorse. Annio, Servilia, Publio and Vitellia appear, voicing anxiety and confusion. Believing he has succeeded in killing the emperor, Sesto starts to confess but is silenced by Vitellia.
Annio tells Sesto that the emperor has escaped harm. When Sesto confesses his assassination attempt, Annio advises that telling Tito the truth will earn forgiveness. Vitellia implores Sesto to flee for both their sakes, before Publio enters and demands Sesto’s sword; the man Sesto struck in the flaming Capitol was a fellow conspirator, Lentulo, who survived. But Sesto is now under suspicion and is led off for questioning.
The people are relieved to find Tito safe. When the emperor doubts his friend Sesto’s disloyalty, Publio cautions against being too trusting in the face of betrayal. Sesto has confessed and been sentenced, with other conspirators, to be thrown to the lions. Annio agrees that Sesto must be punished but asks Tito to consider the case compassionately. The emperor hesitates to sentence his friend to death until he has questioned Sesto. Alone with Tito, Sesto hesitates to implicate Vitellia. Tito, not satisfied with Sesto’s explanation, orders him led to execution. Alone, Tito agonizes over his decision, then tells Publio that Sesto’s fate will soon be made known.
Addressing the gods, Tito says that if they want a stern ruler, they ought to take away his human heart.
The distraught Vitellia, fearing that Sesto has implicated her in the conspiracy, ignores Servilia’s and Annio’s pleas to help them save Sesto. But when Vitellia takes Tito’s announcement of her as his choice as proof that Sesto did not betray her secret, she realizes she cannot accept the throne at the price of Sesto’s life. When she confesses her guilt, the betrayed ruler almost hardens his heart before deciding to pardon the conspirators, valuing their repentance more than their fidelity.
Renata Pokupic as Sesto in the Chicago Opera Theater production of La clemenza di Tito. Photo: Richard Hein © 2009