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.)