La Clemenza Di Tito – Berenice’s Potato

There are two items in this scene from Act I of La Clemenza di Tito (Paris Opera, 2005) which require a little explication.

The first is the muscle suit. If someone put a gun to my head and demanded an interpretation I would say that given the context, the removal of the rubber muscle suit and its subsequent failure to reappear (I cannot believe I am writing something that references both “La Clemenza di Tito” and “a rubber muscle suit” but I suppose I bring this on myself, don’t I) are an indication of Tito putting behind him his own fleshly desires. After all, this is the scene in which Berenice bids us goodbye. She and her . . .apparatus move across the stage just as Publio helps Tito off with the suit. Tito is said to love Berenice, but he gives her up for the good of Rome. And it’s interesting that the fleshly desires are on the outside with Tito. Easy to remove — not necessarily a part of him?

And then there is Berenice’s potato. I confess myself at a loss with this one. It is a large brown potato, with a golden interior. It is pulled across the stage by a shadowy figure in a hat and a cassock-like coat. Berenice herself is a young woman wearing a white gown and a white headdress crowned with leaves. As she and her potato disappear stage right, Tito washes his hands.

This scene, even with the muscle suit, would operate in precisely the same way if Berenice merely walked across with her entourage, or was pulled in a chariot or something. I know little about the theater, but I will go out on a limb and categorically state that the default choice for ‘on-stage conveyance’ in Mozart operas is not ‘potato.’ This potato calls attention to itself, and thus we have to assume it is there for a reason. This is a potato that is crying out for interpretation.

Actually, I take that back, about the ‘precisely the same way.’ With Berenice in that potato, she can’t reach Tito, even when she stretches out her hands – she’s too high up. If she were walking, or pulled in a chariot/wagon or whatever, she could easily pause to say goodbye. But here she can’t. The shadowy man with the hat is not going to stop pulling her along: this is not a normal human everyday sort of conveyance. She is in that potato, there is no visible exit from the potato, and the evidence suggests that this is a potato that seats only one. Berenice is going, there will be no extended goodbyes, and Tito cannot go with her.

Is the potato, then, intended to represent Tito’s categorical decision that it’s over between the two of them?

If so, I have to give the director some credit. If I were thinking to myself, “how am I going to represent the abstract concept of ‘Tito has a made a final and irreversible decision’ on stage?” I would never in a million years have come up with “potato.”

(Further potato discussion here.)

21 thoughts on “La Clemenza Di Tito – Berenice’s Potato

    1. This is a very significant interpretive question – possibly a game-changer as far as our reading of the opera is concerned. I think it could be a baked potato that has been allowed to cool. Softer and more comfortable for Berenice – and easier to get the seating carved out just right.

      Then again, depending on how far she’s going in that thing, moisture could be an issue.

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        1. Most people don’t know this, but there is a variety of potato cultivated primarily in what used to be the Papal States (near Rome) called the ‘clemenzina potato’ which is actually resistant to the blight that caused the potato famine.

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    1. Why don’t we steal an idea from critical theory and claim that Sir Walter is an operational force in that production of Clemenza by the very fact that he never appears — present by his very absence, as they say.

      (I am NOT going to embark upon an essay about Blackadder as a heuristic device for opera criticism . . .do not tempt me. It is too late at night for that kind of thing.)

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      1. In my experience Black Adder references are rare in opera with the exception of Don Carlo(s), Anna Bolena and anything with Rolando Villazon in it. Monty Python is, however, ubiquitous. The extent to which Rossini’s Armide prefigures Monty Python and the Holy Grail is staggering. When I saw the Met production I expected Renée Flemming to get bitten by a møøse.

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        1. Ha! I think I would probably enjoy watching a production of just about anything that involved both Renee Fleming and a moose.(Provided, of course, that neither Ms. Fleming nor the moose came to any permanent harm)

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  1. hehe. first, i now recognize this scene from Garanca’s documentary. When first saw it back then, i really thought they were rehearsing and sharing the stage with a Wagner’s opera (first was that duet between Sesto and Annio, and immediately they jumped off the stage and next thing was that man with muscles).

    Actually my first reaction was that it’s an asteroid, and she’s stuck on it due to gravity. The surface of that thingy also looks like that of a “smooth” asteroid (must have had water running! hence life!)

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      1. a once in a lifetime passerby. he tried to slow her down, he tried to reel her in to his orbit, his muscles fizzled under frictional force, but nooo, she’s flying away for good… Bereniceeee

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    1. And since there were no potatoes in England when Edward was king, the potatoes are both present and absent at the same time and thus the staging plays not only with time and space but with History Itself . . . .

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  2. I just got the DVD of this production in my stack of cheapo Presto clearance disks. It’s terrific whatever one thinks of the potato. (If one had a potato in Lohengrin would it be a Wagner tuber?). Susan Gram and Catherine Nagel stadt in particular are quite awesome.

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