Mitridate Re di Ponto: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1770)

michael-spyres-as-mitridate-c2a9-roh-photo-by-bill-cooper.jpg

(Royal Opera House, 7 July 2017)

★★★★

Mitridate, king of Pontus, is missing, presumed dead. His two sons, Farnace and Sifare, have returned from the battlefield to skulk around their father’s palace and engage in the traditional pastime of operatic royalty: viz. each scheming to beat the other to the throne. Farnace, billed as the ‘evil’ son, is considering an alliance with the wicked Romans. Sifare, the ‘good’ son, is deeply in love with his father’s intended bride, the beautiful princess Aspasia. Plots are well underway when – shock horror! – it turns out that Mitridate isn’t actually dead at all, but has allowed such rumours to spread in the hope of testing his sons’ loyalty. When he returns to Pontus, the scene is set for a right royal show-down. One of Mozart’s first operas, written when he was only fourteen, this has its issues – numerous issues – as a piece of work, but it’s presented in the Royal Opera House’s classic and extravagant production, with a really splendid cast.

Let’s get the main issue out of the way first. Mitridate is too long. It clocks in at about an hour less than Wagner’s Tristan, but for Baroque opera that’s pretty epic. Part of the problem is that the young Mozart had trouble with pacing: everything is slow; everything is angst-ridden, as you might expect from a precocious fourteen-year-old. Act 2 is essentially a series of arias in which people lament their feelings and, occasionally, wish to die. The act is only brightened up by the appearance of Marzio, the Roman envoy, appearing in full purple-and-gold, laurel-wreathed regalia on top of a giant globe. More on that in a minute. But the excessive length and the self-indulgent arias didn’t put off the audience at Covent Garden last night, who packed out the house to the rafters. And that’s due to the Royal Opera House’s solution to the problems of this youthful work. Graham Vick’s classic production transforms the opera in a visual feast of stylised Baroque gesture and magnificently absurd costumes. It’s a banquet for the eyes.

Mozart: Mitridate

Brotherly love: Sifare (Salome Jicia) and Farnace (Bejun Mehta) © ROH/Bill Cooper

Back to the plot for a moment. We can skim through this pretty quickly. Sifare, as I’ve said, has committed the sin of falling in love with his father’s betrothed. Farnace also has his eye on the lovely Aspasia, but primarily for the advantages that would bring him in seizing the throne. To be fair to Farnace, he is the eldest son and so it isn’t entirely out of the question for him to hope for the throne. But the problem is that Mitridate hates him. At every opportunity, he reminds us that Farnace is loathsome, a traitor, and the implication is that Mitridate would rather nail his tongue to the table than let Farnace’s grubby little hands touch the crown. It’s never made entirely clear what Farnace has done to deserve this. In fact, it sounds as if he’s had an entirely miserable childhood, with his little brother taking all his father’s affection, and it’s not surprising that he’s turned out to have father issues. Farnace hopes that his friendship with the Roman agent Marzio might help him to depose his father (and brother) and claim the throne of Pontus, but he’s soon to find that Marzio’s help will come at a cost.

What Farnace has forgotten, in his pursuit of Aspasia, is that he’s actually already promised to be married to someone else. Ismene, princess of Parthia, is the daughter of his father’s ally and Mitridate brings her back with him from the wars, seeing this as an opportunity to make Farnace settle down. Farnace, obviously, is less than thrilled. But Ismene turns out to be the most sensible and sensitive character in the opera, managing her disappointment when her beloved Farnace rejects her, and acting as a voice of reason in moments of incipient bloodshed. Her soothing words are much needed: from the moment of his return, Mitridate more or less has it in for Farnace; but when he hears that Sifare and Aspasia have been making calf-eyes at each other in his absence, he flies into a murderous rage. With both of his sons condemned to death, and the Romans prowling at the gates of Pontus, will Mitridate’s empire stand or fall?

Mozart: Mitridate

Aspasia (Albina Shagimuratova, who was indisposed when we went). Note the fabulous dress

This particular production has been dogged with a lot of last-minute cast changes, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of the performances. The role of Sifare was originally meant to be sung by Anett Fritsch, but has now been taken on by Salome Jicia. It’s a bit of a thankless role, as Sifare is something of a wet blanket, but Jicia handled it very well, with a rich and confident soprano, and an expression of fixed nobility. I really can’t find Sifare that interesting, and the choreography in this production makes him even stiffer, but that isn’t Jicia’s fault. Her Aspasia should have been Albina Shagimuratova, whom we saw as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni a couple of years ago, but due to illness Shagimuratova pulled out and was replaced by Vlada Borovko, a member of the ROH Young Artists’ programme. She’d already sung a couple of performances before ours; but what an opportunity for a young singer! And what a challenge…

The young Mozart made a point of writing very tricky arias to show off his talents, and Aspasia gets most of the very hard music. Her opening aria, Al destin, che la minaccia, would be demanding even for a seasoned professional, but Borovko pulled out all the stops and delivered that vaulting coloratura with flair. She was a bit quiet for the rest of Act 1, perhaps having exhausted her fire on that crucial first aria, but she came back in Acts 2 and 3. Visually she made a perfect Aspasia: poised, but young, gentle but proud. Of course, in this production there are challenges quite aside from the vocal ones: Aspasia has to negotiate a court mantua approximately six feet wide, which makes the flamboyant tonnelets worn by the ‘men’ look positively sane. Borovko was more than equal to the task: gliding around the stage like a porcelain doll, her emotions as constrained as her costume.

Mozart: Mitridate

Farnace (Bejun Mehta) experiences the ‘friendship’ of Rome thanks to Marzio (Rupert Charlesworth)

The role of Marzio shouldn’t be a scene-stealer. He has one scene in Act 1, a brief appearance in Act 2, and a long-awaited aria in Act 3, but he’s just a Roman factotum, an embodiment of the threat roiling just beyond Mitridate’s borders. He was originally meant to be sung by Andrew Tortise, but due to illness the role was taken on by one of my favourites: Rupert Charlesworth. Ironically, in an opera full of flowing locks, Charlesworth’s own hair was hidden under a severe Roman wig, but to be fair you didn’t really notice that. From the moment he came on and dramatically flung back his hooded cloak – to reveal a huge tonnelet of purple silk, embroidered with gold in a Greek-key pattern, and topped with a glittering breastplate – the audience loved him. He had a habit of appearing on stage, striking remarkable poses (said entrance; or his appearance on top of the giant globe), and heading off again before he had much of a chance to sing. When he finally got his aria in Act 3, it wasn’t the best music, but he made the most of it. Charlesworth is always a joy to watch, whether he’s having a spat with Erica Eloff or trying to seduce Valer Sabadus, and here he strode around the stage with drawn gladius, rather wild-eyed and accompanied by a trio of formidably camp Roman soldiers in tumbling purple plumes and more gold.

At the final curtain, the greatest cheer was reserved by Lucy Crowe’s Ismene. Crowe is much beloved on the London opera scene and she’s never been anything less than perfect in anything I’ve seen (even the vastly problematic Indian Queen). Here she also had to tackle Ismene’s movements, which were part-Indian, part-automaton, and often echoed by two maidservants. I was baffled by the live dove brought on stage at one point, but then I remembered that there had been a stuffed falcon or eagle in the first scene, and wondered whether this was something to do with that eagle / dove dichotomy that seems to feature heavily in Baroque operas. Ismene was very definitely a dove, bringing peace and comprehension in a difficult world.

Mozart: Mitridate

Mitridate (Michael Spyres) © ROH/Bill Cooper

Crowe’s reception was almost matched by that for Michael Spyres as the eponymous king. Spyres’s name comes up again and again in Baroque music, although I’ve never seen him live before and only have one of his recordings (Mazzoni’s Antigono). He has a wonderful light tenor, with a hint of belcanto to it, which carried effortlessly even up to the gods in the opera house – in fact, I should emphasise that all singers projected extremely well, which hasn’t always been the case here. Spyres also threw himself into the posing and posturing needed for the role and had the benefit of one of the most fabulous costumes and the best wig.

And then there’s Farnace. If the opera has a villain, he’s it, but as I said earlier you get the feeling he had a very hard childhood and so there’s a hint of sympathy for him, especially because (spoiler!) at the end he turns out to be a thoroughly good egg and puts the Romans to flight all by himself. Or so it seems. The role was taken by the American countertenor Bejun Mehta, whose strong projection and vivacious acting brought the stage to life. On being introduced to Ismene, this Farnace did a double take and then froze, as if he could already see his father’s plans tying his future in knots. His performance of Son reo: l’error confesso was perfectly judged: Farnace admits his guilt to his father, in a way that very smoothly drops Sifare in it as well.

And I have to say that Mehta did a fantastic job with an aria I was rather dreading: the infamous ‘rock aria’ in Act 3, Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto. Having been chained to a rock by Mitridate, Farnace has been freed by Marzio, who invites him to become a Roman client king. Thinking about this, Farnace decides he would rather be free than a Roman slave, and decides to throw in his lot with his father after all. This is a long aria: almost nine minutes. In the wrong hands it can lag, but Mehta sang it with such expressive gentleness and warmth that I found it very beautiful. Plus, I think two of the da capo repetitions were cut, which made it slightly more bearable. So this is proof, in case anyone needs it, that a countertenor (of Mehta’s experience and calibre) can easily cope with a leading role on a stage the size of Covent Garden. The music just has to be handled properly by the conductor, and Christophe Rousset did a good job of pacing – even if I wished Mozart had speeded things up a bit now and again.

Mozart: Mitridate

Farnace (Bejun Mehta)’s change of heart © ROH/Bill Cooper

As you may know from the DVD of the original production, and as you can see from the photos, the overall vibe is samurai, crossed with Noh theatre, crossed with the more excessive end of the Baroque spectrum. I overheard a number of people in the audience laughing at the costumes and saying what ridiculous shapes they were, with the implication: what will these crazy designers think of next? As it happens, Graham Vick’s designs are probably the closest that most of us will see to the costumes of 18th-century opera (for further examples, I refer you to Partenope and Xerxes). These tonnelets were standard issue for male characters in the Baroque period, as were grand stylised gestures. Ironically, despite the otherworldly feel of Vick’s creation, it’s probably a good deal more authentic than most Baroque revivals.

The music is not Mozart’s best. It’s the kind of production one goes to watch for its colour and design, but I’m not sure I’d curl up on an evening and listen to it with a cup of tea. Having said that, the cast and orchestra took on a challenging piece and turned it into a flamboyant, enjoyable night out, full of strong performances. Particular congratulations to Borovko who, despite her occasional quietness, stepped into a very complex role at short notice; and huge virtual bouquets to the power quartet of Charlesworth, Crowe, Mehta and Spyres, each of whom lit up the stage whenever they appeared. This was the final night, alas, but the performance is being broadcast on Radio 3 tonight (8 July) and will probably be available on iPlayer for a month or so. If you want the full visual whammy, you’ll have to go back to the DVD with the original cast. I don’t find them as thrilling as the cast we saw last night, but it’s still great fun.

Find out more about the Royal Opera House’s season

Mozart: Mitridate

Ismene (Lucy Crowe) and her two attendants (Natasha Patel and Yinka Williams) © ROH/Bill Cooper

10 thoughts on “Mitridate Re di Ponto: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1770)

  1. dehggial says:

    Rousset really helped the singers by quieting down the orchestra. Even I love this production, it’s so colourful and playful! I’ve too heard people laugh at the costumes but I guess they lack imagination. The choreography was a hoot.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hey, I never said boring. As for the rest, these are only my opinions and I am very happy to hear dissenting views. Michael has already expressed disbelief over on Facebook and I guess he told you to come and read it too. I think I have a point in saying that the flow is not as fluid as it would be in Mozart’s later operas and, although I understand we have different views on this, I maintain that Act 2 could have been a little livelier. Mozart may be a genius but he was only fourteen at this time and he was still honing his craft. Having said this, I found this production far more enjoyable than the one on DVD. Again, probably just personal taste.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Plus, I only mention the length a couple of times amid plenty of praise for the production, cast and execution, so I think you’ve picked up slightly the wrong emphasis…

      • Calvin says:

        Hey there, Michael just said he didn’t understand your review, so that prompted
        me to read it.

        And no, you never said boring but ‘could have been livier’ implied boring, at least to me. This production happens to be fabulous but the musicians, were castrated – no pun intended – by Rousset. (I wont go into further details but many of them form what I understand hated working with him.) Musically, it was a disaster, one harpsichord, no ripieno, irrationally fast tempi, none of Mozart’s extant cadenzas used as far as I remember – could be wrong of Venga pur.

        Mitridate as it stands, not only in my opinion, is probably the greatest 18th century opera seria. There are too many reasons to list, but I’ll have a go.

        First of all, Mozart closely studied the operas of Jomelli and Bach, on which Mitridate is clearly modelled. He worshipped Bach and throughout his career copied him in the design of a few arias we now think of uniquely Mozart. The first one was almost surely Farnaspe’s “Cara la dolce fiamma” from Adriano which inspired Lungi. Mozart ornamented Cara and in Lungi made the horn parts more prominent by giving it an obbligato. There are also versions extant without the horn solo. Interestingly Mozart also copied Bach’s design elsewhere – eg. the concert aria for piano – which no doubt inspired his “Ch’io mi scordi di te” KV 505 – his parting gift for Storace. And then there is also Martern aller artern – which has the same obbligati as the prima donna’s Act 2 (?) aria from Scipione in Act 2 if memory serves. Etc
        etc.

        The problem here is that, in my not so humble opinion, you are approaching this work, from what I understand from your review, from either an uninformed or disinterested 20th century pov. Which doesn’t work so well. It’s rather like going to a Picasso and saying the eye is in the wrong shape and in the wrong place. I personally don’t like Picasso but I would like to think that I understand what he is doing. And here lies the difference. Dramma per music is very formally structured as you know. Not only are the structure of the arias customised to the talents of the singers and taste of the time, but also to the requirements of composition of the time. And Mozart mostly conforms to these rules, but even at his age he goes beyond expectations and formalities. Therefore, thinking off the top off my head there are at least 3
        types of arias he uses in various dramatic positions: Dal segno, ABAB for sure, and some like Se di lauri, maybe, and def Pallid ombre which quite frankly defy categorisation. And here Mozart is ahead of his time, not in the design only but also in the dramatic impact with which he endows these old fashioned structures with some pretty remarkably advanced music. Lungi for example has been thought to sound appropriate for Fiordiligi. And presumably Lungi was one of the reasons you thought Act 2 could have been ‘livier’?

        Anyway, back to the arias. All of these would have been designed to show Mozart’s
        understanding of writing contemporary opera. But the key structure is also
        interesting, let’s take Act 1:

        Ouverture in D; typical 18th century Italian sinfonia – middle section is the best part of it in my opinion and I generally hate slow music. So lets see how many arias will be in its tonic, subdominant and dominant keys.

        Al destin C; dal segno (a great aria castrated by Rousset’s omission of the
        timps and super fast ‘Kill pussy-cat. Kill, kill! tempi’. Crowe’s Act 2 aria was the worst – Crowe could barely get the notes out clearly – it was a mush – and the tuning was, lets just say ‘Parthian’). But in terms of key design he takes us a tone down. This means that some ‘serious’ is happening and we need to take notice. it is like going from 3rd to 2nd gear. the aria is expansive and perfectly captures Aspasia’s stato d’anima. but you’d never have thought this with Rousset at the helm.

        Soffre in B flat, dal segno. This aria is disappointing after Al destin, but it has its moment – my fav is the lead up into the cadenza in the a section – the orchestration finally captures the storm in Sifare’s soul.

        L’odio G maj, ABA – altered da capo. standard – but still a pretty GOOD aria, especially for a for terzo uomo. sub dominant: what does Abate say: your father is alive, grown up daddy’s coming.

        Nel sen mi palpita; g minor!!!!!! and no intro because she is so
        desperate to get the words out of her mouth,  Sorta AB . Based on
        typical key design of the time this aria should have may gone into E flat or C man or
        maybe D maj. Sub dominant min. Isn’t it interesting that her g is the relative minor linked to Arbate’s daddy’s coming and her reaction to this surprising news?

        Parto – Cut in this production. a great coloratura aria in A maj. A
        major let that sink it. This means instead of the traditional step of
        a third or a 5th we rise a major second. That is pretty bad ass! Dominant

        Venga; F maj kinda expected – Dal segno. Mehta NAILED this aria.

        March is in D – usual fare – tonic

        Se di lauri ; G maj. Probably one of Mozart’s most spectacular arias. The
        wandering and extreme leaps incredibly illustrate not only the singer’s technique but also the psyche of Mitridate’s wandering and confused mind with thoughts flicking about, no doubt recalling his defeat and trying to make sense of it. that make. It also says alot about the determination this character goes through to achieve his goals. (Mozart had to go through 500 versions before d’Ettore was happy as you know). And ABA. Subdominant

        In faccia – Bflat – as expected. ABA – prolly Ismene’s best aria. Crowe NAILED the choreography.

        D maj for the final aria of defiance. So what did you notice? The act started and finished in D maj – the root key that Mitridate and its most important arias (Lungi being the most important, Son reo – where sh*t gets real ABAB and I wont go into the psychological reason why this aria is in that form like Parto and the REALLY big aria of Mitridate the cut from Act 2. The duet is in A maj too) will circle around. This is also something that Hasse did as well, btw. But shh don’t tell anyone, they might just notice it and realise that all the core piece of 18th operas typically circulate around the tonic and its dominant 5th and would therefore need particular attention and care. But, if an aria slides into the minor or supertonic then alarm bells should be going off.

        And that’s just Act 1. With Act 2 containing THE MOST SPECTACULAR music of the evening as with MOST operas… I would need to go into some real detail as Act 1 was just the warm-up to what Mozart had in store and even the above facile analysis just scratches the surface of the genius contained therein.

        Now, in terms of length – if someone interested in Wagner can sit through 20 hours of the Ring, I would logically conclude that someone interested in early music could sit through 4 hours of Mozart, whether its Nozze or Mitridate. Moreover, if the audience goes to an opera I would imagine them being interested in being transported into the time of the composer and experience a little something from his world. Now if they longed for something modern and shorter, no doubt Otello or Turandot would have been more appropriate?  Therefore, I must say, your review came off a little flippant, condescending and somewhat disrespectful. But then that is also the attitude of much of the early music crowd. These are after all great works of art and I would like to think they deserve a little better consideration. Admittedly, not every opera by Mozart is a great masterwork, Ascanio and La fintas jump to mind. Le nozze was considered a disaster at its premiere whereas Mitridate was a smash hit. What does this say of our sensibilities today where Nozze is the masterpiece and Mitridate not so much?

        As a reviewer making a name for herself through her infectious and enthusiastic accounts of performances and matters artistic – whether you do so formally or informally since it is published to the public carrying with it a certain amount of increasing authority and responsibility – I must admit I’m astonished and stunned by this review. But worse so, disappointed.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        I’m sorry to hear that you’re disappointed by what is, I would argue, a generally positive review. Clearly, as you have displayed above, you’re intimately familiar with the structure and the musical theory behind the various parts of the opera and I’m sure this deconstruction will be extremely helpful to those looking for a more in-depth musicological analysis of Mitridate. For that, I’m grateful: thanks for taking the time to break down its component factors in such depth.

        As for the personal attacks, however… I freely admit I’m ‘uninformed’ next to someone who has been singing this repertoire professionally or semi-professionally for years. I have never pretended otherwise. The opera aspect of this blog is, as I’ve always said, a record of the adventures of an enthusiastic newbie in a wonderful and occasionally baffling field. While I always welcome opposing viewpoints, I do ask commenters to be courteous to whoever they’re disagreeing with. And lambasting me or my writing as ‘disinterested’, ‘flippant’, ‘condescending’ and ‘disrespectful’ isn’t really helpful, accurate or courteous.

  2. Calvin says:

    Hey, based on your reply I think you misunderstand my comments and their intention, but I’m happy for us to agree to disagree here. As for this being considered a personal attack. I would not have wasted my time writing what I have written if I did not care about you and admire your GENUINE love and enthusiasm for the genre. When I read your reviews I am often JEALOUS of you, because I can never hear these works again for the first time and recapture the joy they brought me in those moments. But what I will say, as a performer, whom you identify as ‘professional or semi-professional’, I have always understood, and accepted, that if I give myself out to be a sweet, I should be prepared to be chewed.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      The image of you as a sweet being chewed made me smile and, as per our emails, we agree to disagree. As I said there, I am best imagined as an enthusiastic terrier who enjoys chewing slippers without appreciating the great value of said slippers… Here’s to much more Mozart, baffling and otherwise x

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