Sesto, Vitellia, and the Space Between Binaries

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Originally appeared as “‘Let all that is not love perish’: Gender Binarization and True Identity in La Clemenza di Tito“, a research paper for Dr. Kim Knight‘s Approaches to Arts, Technology and Emerging Media class in fall 2017.


Introduction Travesti Roles and Gender Psychology Sesto and Vitellia Sesto and Tito Annio and Servilia From the Exaggerations of Gender to Seen Identity Footnotes Works Cited


Opera is at once earnestly serious and completely ridiculous. It is a caricature of humanity, drawn in love. Fifty-year-old voices come from fifteen-year-old characters, death by sword or sickness is no excuse not to sing five minutes of farewell, and young men are often sung by women. But there is truth beneath these surface absurdities. Sometimes it takes the full expanse of a dramatic soprano’s technique to display the intensity of a young woman’s emotional landscape. The dying aria is a vulnerable, vivid moment of emotional disclosure, making audible all the fear or pain or triumph or love that may attend the death. Reality is not rejected, but amplified.

The “trouser role” or travesti (“disguised”) role holds a deep truth of its own. What is the body, or even the voice, to determine identity? What does gender matter? The heavy-handed, fearful binarization of gender that marks almost every human space is lifted for a moment in these roles. One opera in particular – Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito 1 – displays the damage that such heavy binarization can cause. Between its five main characters, it shows the danger of both the aggressive hypermasculine and passive effeminate naivete, and models an effective unity of courage, initiative, humility, respect, and love based on communication and recognition. Identity based on true understanding has more power than identity based on gender constructs.

Clemenza includes two travesti roles. Sesto, a Roman nobleman, was originally written for a castrato singer.2 Sesto’s friend Annio, a younger man acting as messenger to the emperor, was written for a female soprano. In modern performance, both men are often sung by female mezzo-sopranos (a voice slightly darker and lower than most sopranos).

Sesto drives the emotional action of the opera. He is the emperor Tito’s best friend, but he is in love with the dangerous princess Vitellia, who wants revenge on Tito for usurping her throne. (She would just seduce him, but he has a girlfriend.) Instead, she harasses and manipulates Sesto into trying to kill Tito. Sesto finally gives in, but attacks the wrong man and is arrested and condemned to death. Tito, heartbroken and betrayed, tries to understand what went wrong between them, but Sesto refuses to implicate Vitellia. Tito finally decides that he cannot kill his friend, Vitellia confesses herself, and Tito forgives everybody.

Annio remains a subplot character, but has a healthier and happier arc. He is engaged to Sesto’s brave and practical sister Servilia, but when Tito is forced by politics to break up with his foreign girlfriend, he offers to marry Servilia and make her and Sesto royalty. Annio brings Servilia the news and is ready to step out of her way so that she can become the empress, but Servilia declares that Annio is the only one she will ever love and explains as much to Tito. Tito welcomes her straightforwardness and courage and gives the couple his blessing. Annio’s loving support and Servilia’s fearless initiative make them a powerful team in the second act as they work to rescue Sesto from his fate.

Travesti Roles and Gender Psychology

These travesti roles (and others like them) model a unique liminality of gender, bringing femininity to the masculine and masculinity to the feminine. Annio is supportive, strong, brave, and kind. Sesto rejects the violent masculinity Vitellia frames for him and tries to hold onto his own gentle, loving identity in the face of abuse. Neither one fully conforms to the typical binarization of gendered traits. (Neither, for that matter, do Vitellia, Servilia, or Tito. More on them in a moment.)

The idea of transgressing gender has fascinated psychologists and philosophers, who suggest all kinds of motives for it. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler notes that drag performance disrupts the idea that gender is a “natural fact” rather than a performance accepted as nature (p. viii). Simone de Beauvoir suggests that the masculine and feminine are divided less by their nature than by their access to means of individual self-expression (p. 50). Joan Riviere attempts to define those who transgress the space of their gender in a violently phallogocentric triangle of figurative castration, consumption, and fear (p. 310). Reynolds, on the other hand, notes that the romance of the travesti character is rooted in a sexual sameness, a “self-reflection” with the feminine object of their attraction (pp. 147-148). The “gentle masculine” travesti character – especially the Romantic pageboy type, like Annio – is not so much castrated as he is allowed to develop a sexuality without violence.

I would suggest that this preoccupation with binarizing gender is itself a bit phallogocentric – and silly. Gender is simply not that important. The space between the two sacred poles of Male and Female is so solemnly analyzed as sexual deviancy, repression and fear, when in fact it is an open playground, a meeting-space for mutual discovery and delight. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote asks, “Just because I have a female body is that the largest part of my identity? After two decades of male transformation I don’t feel it is. I feel the part of me that floats between physical and sexual aspects of my life is the truest part – a neutral space not limited by binary concepts that make us either male or female.” (Coote, “My Life As A Man”)

Rather, Donna Haraway’s “split and contradictory self” seems like a more sensible evaluation of reality (Haraway, p. 586). Human nature is full of contradictions, simultaneous binaries whose balance creates identity. And the travesti role takes these contradictions, this “neutral”, and celebrates them. The travesti role, simultaneously holding masculine and feminine in their heart, models an optimistic unity created from double perspectives. They are the wildcard, “anarchic” (Reynolds, p. 145), free to create their own path.

Sesto and Vitellia: “I will say you are the most vile of men”

In Womanliness as a Masquerade, Joan Riviere posits a Freudian analysis of women who display masculine characteristics. She argues that such a woman, on a primal level, desires to consume the mother, castrate the father and take his place, and then appease the mother by placing the stolen masculinity at her service in exchange for gratitude and recognition (pp. 309-313).

At first glance, Sesto would seem to fit this triangle: a “feminine” voice that is visually male, desiring Vitellia, who demands that he act to destroy Tito and place his power in her hands in exchange for her love. And yet Sesto refuses this analysis, simply because he loves Tito.

In Sesto’s very first line he argues, “To get rid of Tito – the world would lose its delight, Rome a father, and we a friend.” 3 Even under Vitellia’s ruthless manipulation, Sesto cannot completely talk himself into the murder. “Vitellia, stop, enough! You’ll see the Capitol on fire, this steel in Tito’s breast… oh, God, what chill is this I find in my blood?” (Even then, as he sketches the castrative action, he frames it as a vision to give to Vitellia, not as an action he can take.)

So while Sesto desires Vitellia (and her love and recognition), he does not simultaneously desire the destruction of Tito. He repeatedly demonstrates a strong love for Tito without identifying with him (i.e., without seeing himself in his position, whether politically or in relationship to Vitellia). Sesto’s liminality of gender does not position him in the Rivierean triangle.

It is instead Vitellia who more accurately embodies the Rivierean masculine woman – and the destruction that accompanies it. Tina Packer, in her Shakespearean study Women of Will, identifies women like King Lear’s older daughters, Lady Macbeth, and Volumnia in Coriolanus as sacrificing the feminine side of their identity to embrace a dark, monstrous version of masculinity through competitive aggression and lust for power (pp. 227-253). Vitellia also belongs to this “unsexed” category. Not only does she embrace aggression, abuse and death as tools she can use, she is disgusted by the feminine qualities she sees in Sesto. The below exchange from Macbeth could be given to Sesto and Vitellia with no change of text:

MACBETH. Prithee, peace: I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.

LADY M. What beast was’t, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it, then were you a man; and, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man. (Shakespeare, Act I Scene VII)

Lady Macbeth and Vitellia both display a crucial phallogocentric fallacy: that more masculinity is always the best solution. In so doing, they attempt to erase their own femininity as lesser, because it seems to obstruct their power. This desire to become masculine at the expense of the feminine leads towards despair.

In her appropriation of violent masculinity, Vitellia operates in a space that allows only for power struggles, sex, and death. She is strong, she is powerful, she is sexual – and she can only destroy. She is faced with Sesto, a figure balanced between masculinity and femininity, and yet curiously lacking in what Vitellia considers masculine. He is vulnerable, faithful, loving, seeking harmony and communication rather than power. Vitellia, rejecting this in herself, also tries to erase it in Sesto.

SES. Can any reason justify this?

VIT. Any reason! You have a thousand, take whichever you care for and let it rule your heart. Is glory your vow? I propose to liberate your country. Are you capable of an illustrious ambition? Here is a path to the throne for you. Will my hand be your fortune? Run, avenge me, and I am yours. Do you need yet another reason? Then know that Tito loved me, that he purchased my heart and blocked you from it – and that if he remains alive, I could repent (I don’t trust myself) and love him. Now go: if you are not moved by desire for glory, ambition, or love, if you can tolerate such a rival, then I will say you are the most vile of men.

Swayed into monstrous-masculine-femininity (that is, exaggerated masculinity) by Vitellia, Sesto attempts the crime. But it goes against his nature. Halfway into the Capitol, he panics and almost stops, lamenting: “And who are you betraying? The greatest, most just, most merciful ruler on the earth, to whom you owe everything… oh, Vitellia, I don’t have the heart to further your anger. I should die before facing him with this blow.” After he thinks he has committed the murder, he appears in a daze of heartbreak, already prepared to denounce himself as “the wickedest of men, a horror to nature” – Vitellia’s crime, enacted in his person, transgresses nature itself. Sesto cannot be a man, if, as Vitellia thinks, manhood requires this violence. Such an identity is a horror.

The exaggerated masculine – aggression, violence, shame – engenders despair, regardless of gender. It unbalances gender liminality by seeking to destroy the feminine, rather than embrace it.

Sesto and Tito: “By my heart I measure his”

So the conflict of the first act stems from this dark, exaggerated masculinity. But Mozart was no stranger to playing with gender symmetry. Act II is driven by the interplay between Sesto and Tito – whose odd mix of stoicism and naivete recalls Beauvoir’s theory of the woman’s “immanent” realm, isolated from the real world (p. 60).

If Vitellia operates in a space that includes only sex, power, and death, Tito operates in one that pretends they don’t exist at all. Forced in his first scene to give up his lover for the sake of Rome, Tito does his best to look on the bright side and turn it into an opportunity. He sings, “This is the only fruit of such a high position: helping the distressed, raising up my friends, and rewarding virtue. Everything else is torment and servitude.” This is not a man comfortable with his political power. Later, we observe an exchange between Tito and his captain of the guard, Publio:

TITO. What is this paper?

PUB. Names of the kings who have spoken out against past emperors.

TITO. Barbarous! Recording them and calling them out won’t change their minds, and it allows too much opportunity for unscrupulous people to add innocent names to the list.

PUB. But sir, some of these men have also slandered you.

TITO. So what? If a man speaks lightly of me, I don’t care; if he is mad, I feel for him; if he has a good reason, then I thank him! And if he is indeed spurred by malice, then I forgive him.

A noble impulse, but irresponsible. In Tito’s sunny world of goodness, there is no space for the reality of conflict. While the text of the opera draws less attention to Tito’s flaws than Vitellia’s (it would, after all, be a poor political move to compose a coronation opera featuring a too-obviously-flawed ruler), the curious symmetry is still present. Where Vitellia evokes violent masculinity, Tito more subtly channels the cultural image of the female ingenue. He thinks with an exaggerated femininity: naivete, sweetness, innocence, and idealism. He wants to trust, to understand, to love.

This brings us to one of Clemenza’s central themes: that of “seeing”, recognition and understanding, as love. Tito, as a loving idealist, is always seeking to understand. In Act I, Sesto hesitates to explain why Tito should not marry Servilia. Tito sees his discomfort, and encourages him to share: “Explain, and I will do everything to help you.” When Servilia explains the situation herself, Tito exclaims, “If only everyone had your candor, Servilia, it would no longer be so difficult to understand them, and to rule would no longer be a burden.”

Along the same lines, Sesto asks to be seen and understood again and again. If Vitellia desires in the primal, consuming way that characterizes Riviere’s triangle, Sesto desires a more peaceful relationship: not consuming, but seeing.

VIT. Ebben, che più s’attende? (Then what more are you waiting for?

SES. Un dolce sguardo almeno sia premio alla mia fe!(A single sweet look at least, as prize for my faith!)

SES. Guardami, e tutto oblio, e a vendicarti io volo; a questo sguardo solo da me si penserà.

(Look at me, and I’ll forget everything, I’ll fly to avenge you; think of me with just this look.)

SES. Se tu veder potessi questo misero cor, spergiuro, ingrato, pur ti farei pietà.

(If you could see this miserable heart, false, ungrateful, you would yet have pity.)

Vitellia refuses to love or understand what she sees in him: she belittles and dismisses his loving nature as weak, and demands blind faith from him rather than trust based on mutual knowledge. Tito, on the other hand, speaks of seeing almost as often as Sesto does. He wishes for a simpler life without politics, where he could trust what he sees in people. He displays not only knowledge of Sesto’s heart, but love and trust in him because of it.

TITO. No, cosi scellerato il mio Sesto non credo. Io l’ho veduto non sol fido da amico, ma tenero per me.

(No, I can’t believe my Sesto so wicked. I’ve seen in him not just the faith of a friend, but tenderness towards me.)

And yet his Sesto has indeed betrayed him. Publio, who knows more of the world, recognizes the shortsightedness of Tito’s idealism. “Not everyone has a heart like yours,” he says. “A man with a faithful heart believes every other heart incapable of infidelity.” Tito is forced to face an intrusion of violent desire, betrayal, and death into his closest relationship. The exaggerated feminine is shown to be as inaccurate – and full of despair – as the exaggerated masculine.

These exaggerations of gender sabotage the ability to see and be seen. The interrogation scene between Tito and Sesto is the tensest moment in Act II, driven by a desperate desire for communication that cannot happen. Tito clings to his idealism, probing not for truth but for some proof that he was right all along, that Sesto is not to blame, that his love and faith were not betrayed after all. Sesto is numb, shattered by his own unnatural violence, and refuses to speak as long as he can stand it.

TITO. What did I do to hurt you? Were you after the throne? Tell me as your friend, if you can’t tell me as your ruler. We’ll work together and find a way to pardon you.

SES. (Here is a new kind of pain: either hurt Tito, or accuse Vitellia.)

TITO. You still won’t tell me? Oh, Sesto, you wound my heart deeper than ever. Speak to me, in the name of our friendship.

SES. Sir, I… oh, what am I doing?

TITO. Go on, what is it?

SES. That… that I am the object of the gods’ wrath. That I am too weak to face my fate, that I am a traitor and a villain, that I deserve death, and that I long for it!

Tito gives up and calls the guards back, and Sesto begs for one last kiss: “Please, just for a moment, remember our friendship – I’m not scared of dying, but I can’t bear that I betrayed you.” Tito refuses to look at him. To see, at this point, is too painful: the reality of the betrayal devastates him.

Tito is forced to recognize reality: that violence and conflict and betrayal exist around him, that not everyone wants to live at peace, that his faith is not enough to make the world faithful. And yet he hesitates.

TITO. I must be avenged. But my heart does not want vengeance. The laws must be upheld. Sesto is guilty, Sesto must die. How will history see this? Will it say that I got bored of mercy, as other emperors did of violence? After all, I am the only one he has hurt, and I can forgive him. I will not change! Let Sesto live, even if he is faithless. If the world wants to find fault with me, they can call me too merciful.

Where Sesto, attacked by the concept of violent masculinity, surrendered his true identity, Tito holds fast. Yes, the world is violent; yes, his trust is shattered. But at his core, Tito is not violent, and he refuses to give that up. Now he sees – he sees people as they are, and they are not as great as he thought. And armed with that new understanding, he returns to his natural love, and finds it more powerful than ever. Now he is less naïve, but still strong, brave, and kind.

Where have we heard that before? Ah, right: Annio.

Annio and Servilia: “The more I listen to you, the greater grows my love”

Annio and Servilia are a steadfast support team in the second act. With their own romantic drama quickly resolved, they throw their energy into saving Sesto. Annio is the first to hear Sesto’s confession, and, while shocked and alarmed, immediately starts working on a way to help. “Stop panicking, we have to think… Go back to Tito, and prove your faith to him. The bitterness of your grief is a clear sign that virtue remains in your heart.”

Annio is also the one who brings Sesto’s sentence from the senate to Tito. He sees Tito’s heartbreak firsthand, but doesn’t waver in his mission.

ANN. Generous ruler…

TITO. Annio, just leave me alone for now.

ANN. Forgive me, sire, if I plead for a madman. He is the brother of my beloved. Yes, you were betrayed, and he deserves death; but your heart still allows us hope for him. Listen to your heart, listen to our grief.

Annio sees many things: he understands people’s hearts, and feels for them. Every time he appears, he makes some reference to seeing, understanding, or listening. His perceptiveness makes him a key liaison between every other character. By virtue of his liminal position as messenger, he is allowed access across boundaries of class and gender. Reynolds notes that this type of travesti character is “anarchic… He crosses gender… he crosses class… He is always appearing in the wrong places… thus he unsettles every social order.” (p. 145)

So Annio has already gained that combination of loving support and perceptiveness that Tito must learn, and uses it to help his friend. Servilia’s character also is already established from the beginning: she is called “virtuous and beautiful”, and displays initiative, courage, and candor in her onstage interactions. Servilia is no 19th-century bel canto damsel to go mad and die if she is betrothed to the wrong suitor: she is a Mozartean young lady, and when she has a problem, she finds a way to fix it. She is not afraid to confront the emperor in Act I, and she is not afraid of Vitellia either.

And if the story is to have a whole and hopeful ending, Vitellia must be confronted. She set the conflict in motion – she must be the one to resolve it. Within the narrative, she also holds the resolution in her hand: she is engaged to Tito, giving her the power of an empress, and can intercede for Sesto. While neither Annio nor Servilia know the extent of her involvement (although they may suspect), they are well aware of her political power. Vitellia is convinced at first that Sesto has already betrayed her, but Annio (always well-informed) tells her that her wedding is still set to go forward. Vitellia wavers, struck by this proof of Sesto’s faith, and Servilia seizes the moment.

ANN. If you are too late to give Sesto your help, he is lost!

SERV. Come on! The poor thing loves you more than himself, he grew pale whenever he spoke of you. Are you weeping?

VIT. Go on, I’ll follow you.

SERV. Then what are you waiting for? Ah, Vitellia, if you are…

VIT. Oh gods, I’m coming, don’t torment me.

SERV. If you do nothing but cry for him, all your sorrow is in vain. This useless pity is nothing but cruelty.

Straightforward Servilia has no patience for Vitellia: this is not the sibling who will play her games. The combination of Servilia’s directness and Annio’s trustworthiness (and Sesto’s unseen steadfastness) shocks Vitellia into self-revelation. She cannot carry on in this guilt-ridden state: something must snap.

VIT. Now is the moment, Vitellia, to test your strength. Are you tough enough to see your faithful Sesto dead? Sesto, who loves you more than his own life, who became a criminal through your fault, who obeyed you though you were cruel, loved you though you were unjust, who even in the face of death kept such great faith to you – and knowing all that, you will sleep with the emperor? I would forever see Sesto, all around me.

And thus Vitellia is redeemed by seeing, and by vulnerability. She originally dismisses Sesto’s love and faith and gentleness as weakness, because it gets in her way, and sees him only as a spark for her revenge. When she is finally faced with the horror of her own heart, she can no longer desire to consume Sesto as part of her revenge. In seeing herself, she must see him too. She puts aside the framework of violent masculinity that she envisioned for them both, and sees instead the truth: that even she, by nature, is not cruel, and that Sesto’s faith and love are a strength to be admired. Vitellia moves towards balance by embracing what she saw as weakness.

So Vitellia completes the symmetry of the narrative: like Tito and Sesto she sees and understands, and she rejects her overbinarized worldview. She rushes to the arena where Sesto is to be executed and confesses her involvement before all of Rome. The woman who wanted Tito dead for rejecting her makes herself vulnerable to rejection before the whole city. Tito, of course, has already made up his mind to pardon him, and while exasperated, he has already done the work of reconciling the truth of human nature with his own nature, and he is better equipped to handle this second betrayal. He sticks to his decision: he pardons everyone involved, announcing, “Let it be known throughout Rome that I am still myself.”

From the Exaggerations of Gender to Seen Identity

Thus, when seeing replaces constructed gender, this liminality becomes the pattern for balance and peace. Annio and Servilia combine their support and courage to help someone they love; Vitellia relinquishes her violent idea of masculinity, and finds power in vulnerability; Tito integrates his gentle nature with his new perceptiveness and still finds strength in forgiveness. It is the contradictions that are truer, more natural than the binaries.

As the story ends, it is left to Sesto to pick up the pieces of his own liminal nature. Vitellia’s abuse, his betrayal, and Tito’s heartbreak have scarred him terribly. “You may forgive me, Emperor, but my heart can never forgive what I have done, and will weep for it forever.”

And yet this despair seems less permanent. Perhaps Haraway’s contradictions “allow us hope for him”. Sesto is no longer surrounded by violence on one side and naivete on the other. Servilia and Annio are there for him, full of fierce love and understanding; Tito is ready to begin repairing their relationship (“your true repentance means more to me than constant faith”); and perhaps he can even be at peace with Vitellia. At the very least, she is no longer controlling him, and no longer wants to. Everything and everyone has been seen, and that was what Sesto most longed for. Now, in this new equilibrium of contradictions, healing can begin.


What is constructed in the opera is a mirror model, and spills out beyond the stage. Like most of Mozart’s operas, Clemenza is a study of human nature (earnest and overdramatic, and set to a thrilling score). In a constructed world where gender takes second place to skill and story, the pedantic emphases of the outside world on sexual psychology are at best absurd and at worst hurtful. Both Riviere’s castrative triangle and Reynold’s sexual sameness seem reductive. What character’s arc is entirely described by their gender? No good storyteller treats a label as if it could communicate all the inner life, all the desires and motivations and flaws of the character.

Why, then, should we accept such unnatural division in our world? Accept rather contradiction, liminality, the irreverence of being too much to contain in a single word. Work to see and understand others, rather than relying on the binary baggage of gender. If we can move this equilibrium of contradictions off the stage, what healing might we ourselves find?


  • Clemenza was commissioned in 1791 for the coronation of Leopold II of Bohemia. The libretto was revised by Caterino Mazzolà from a popular 1734 libretto by Pietro Metastasio, and Mozart completed the music in just over two months. For further historical context and literary analysis, see Rice’s Cambridge Opera Handbook: La Clemenza di Tito (Rice, p. 4). Back to reading
  • In the baroque era, around 1640-1800, male singers were often castrated so that they could keep their high voices as opera singers. When the male castrati were unavailable, women often stepped into their roles. Margaret Reynolds, in sketching this history, notes that this concept of best-high-voice-over-all-else was so solidly settled in the cultural consciousness of the baroque era that it overruled the binary of masculine-over-feminine. (p. 136) See Wikipedia for more information. Back to reading
  • All quotations from the Clemenza libretto are my own translation of the Italian text by Mazzolà and Metastasio. Back to reading

Works Cited

  1. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990, p. viii.
  2. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Classic, 2015.
  3. Coote, Alice. “Alice Coote: My Life as a Man.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 May 2015.
  4. Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3, Fall 1988, p. 586.
  5. Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, and Caterino Mazzolà (after Pietro Metastasio). La Clemenza Di Tito. 1791.
  6. Packer, Tina. “Act 4: ‘Chaos Is Come Again’: The Lion Eats The Wolf.” Women of Will: the Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare’s Female Characters, 1st ed., Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, pp. 227–253.
  7. Reynolds, Margaret. “Ruggiero’s Deceptions, Cherubino’s Distractions.” En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. New York : Columbia University Press, 1995.
  8. Rice, John A. La Clemenza di Tito (Cambridge Opera Handbooks). Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  9. Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1929, vol 9.
  10. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. 1623. Act I, scene VII.

December 14th, 2017