(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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.