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1 december 2018

Corneille's play Cinna is the source, at some distance, for Mozart's opera La clemenza di Tito. Or rather for Pietro Metastasio's libretto, which went through many versions before Mozart used it. By 1791 when Tito premiered, even Metastasio had been deceased for awhile, and Mozart may have known next to nothing about Cinna. But the dramatic tensions that Corneille cranked up to eleven when composing Cinna echo 150 years later in Mozart's music.

Cinna puts its characters into the famous dilemme cornélien, which translates roughly as "no-win situation." The title character is in the worst position of all. Cinna is a valued counselor to the emperor Augustus. But Augustus' adoptive father Julius Caesar was the mortal enemy of Cinna's grandfather Pompey! But Cinna is philosophically convinced that monarchy is the best system for Rome, and Augustus the best monarch. But Cinna's girlfriend Emilia refuses to sleep with him till he kills Augustus! But that would be treachery, not patriotism. But Cinna has already involved all his best friends in the plot to assassinate Augustus! What's a fellow to do.

Get a new girlfriend, one is tempted to suggest. Emilia is a bit obsessive on the topic of Augustus getting murdered at the first opportunity. She is strangely confident that her sexual appeal can get Cinna to do anything, and she's implacably homicidal (despite the fact that Augustus has all but adopted her as a substitute for his own banished daughter Julia).

The play cleverly gets its energy from detente. In the second act, Augustus summons Cinna and another conspirator, Maximus, for a confab. He tells them that his head is lying uneasy. He's inclined to restore the republic, and turn to the plow or whatever ex-emperors do. Wouldn't that be better for Rome? Maximus says yes, in relief: getting rid of the Empire without subjecting everybody to a bloodbath is certainly a best practice. But Cinna is aghast. If Augustus steps down now, he will not be able to kill him, and if he doesn't kill Augustus, Cinna can kiss those nights of bliss with Emilia goodbye. Cinna sets about persuading Augustus to stay on the throne, so that he can murder him with a clear(er) conscience.

Everybody's fixing to die, but if you remember La clemenza di Tito, you will recall that the emperor, upon learning that everybody has cooked up a plot to stab him to death, gets a warm fuzzy feeling for all concerned, pardons them, and breaks the cycle of violence, thus ensuring the pax romana. Instrumental in la clémence d'Auguste is the empress Livia, who recommends a politic mercy. Metastasio made his emperor Tito into yet another suitor for the hand of Vitellia (the revenge-obsessed) daughter, which complicates the plot operatically but imbalances it a bit, because Tito's clemency is more internal, lacking an overt advocate.

Apparently Cinna was actually subtitled La clémence d'Auguste early versions, but the subtitle was later removed as being too much of a spoiler. Metastasio restored it, correctly figuring that a repertoire opera wasn't going to hold surprises for audiences anyway.

I read Cinna in the recent Penguin Classics translation by John Edmunds, which is clear and serviceable. Edmunds adopts a very conventional translator's blank verse, liberally making use of contractions to fit ten syllables into a line. So when Cinna says to Augustus (Act 2, Scene 1)

Malgré notre surprise, et mon insuffisance,
Je vous obéirai …
Edmunds renders it as
We're stunned by this, my lord, but I'll obey you,
Unworthy as I am … (17)
There's a tension in this kind of English between the informality of the contractions and the heightened diction of neoclassical tragedy. Twelve French syllables have to crowd into ten English, though the surplus is partly absorbed by the French convention of pronouncing the usually silent final "e"s at the end of words. So the translator must chop some syllables out – that, or swell the lines beyond capacity and lose some of the concentrated effects of the French. It's no big deal, and Edmunds certainly wields his English with accuracy and intelligibility; but the effect (as for many other translators) is always uneasily poised between grandeur and colloquialism.

Corneille, Pierre. Cinna. 1641. Translated by John Edmunds. In Four French Plays. London: Penguin, 2013. 1-60.