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July 12, 2005

A Musical Feast - Mozart's Mitridate, rè di Ponto at Covent Garden

Posted by David Conway

Mozart's Mitridate, rè di Ponto
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
conducted by Richard Hickox, directed by Graham Vick
in repertory 5th - 17th July 2005

Don't go to Mitridate, rè di Ponto expecting any of the subtle insights into human passion and motivation that Mozart was able to convey with the help of his maturity and the libretti of da Ponte and Schikaneder. But it is surprising just how much of the later Mozart there is to be found in his first opera seria, written at the age of 14 for the opera house at Milan. In any case, spectacular singing and an eye-popping production, revived for the first time since 1993, make for a memorable evening.

Mitridate is based on the storyline of Racine's play. As Mitridate's empire succumbs to the might of Rome, his sons Farnace and Sifare dispute over love and loyalty, involving the king's lover Aspasia and the foreign princess Ismene. In the tradition of opera seria the static artifice of the storyline is used as a necklace from which is strung a series of gems, namely the arias sung by the principals.

On being sent the libretto, the composer was also told of the intended cast, and this was sufficient indication of how he had to compose. The mission of an opera seria composer was to suit the particular styles and gifts of the stars to enable them to show off. Not all the singers would approve of what was produced, and would typically demand rewrites; many singers carried about with them "cabinet arias" which were their trademark and which they would try to insist on inserting in any production. In the case of Mitridate, the composer Bernasconi who had also written an opera on the subject tried to persuade the leading soprano to dump Mozart's music in favour of his own. It is a measure of the young composer's prestige (and perhaps the respect he gained from the award earlier that year, at an unprecedented early age, of a Papal order and membership of the prestigious Bologna Accademia Filarmonica) that the opera was produced more or less as he wrote it. It was warmly received by the Milanese – but, as was the tradition in those days, it was never revived. No one had any interest in an opera that was not new. Its first performance after its 1770 première run was not in fact until 200 years later (Salzburg, 1971).

Graham Vick's production gives us all of Mozart's original music, making a substantial (4 hour) evening, with only two short (25 minute) intervals. If you booked, as we did, for the Amphitheatre restaurant, this barely gives you time to get there, bolt your food and return to your seat before the next act's curtain up; this is in fact my only serious complaint about the evening. It may be – but surely they are not so churlish - that the Opera House is trying to revive the culture of the aria di sorbetto, which, as I learnt from the programme, is one for a secondary character at the start of an act, during which the audience can continue to chat or munch their interval refreshment. The programme essays, by the way – especially Stanley Sadie's on opera seria and John Rosselli's on the "Peculiar Institution" of the castrati singers – are unusually informative and relevant.

Interestingly, the remarkable staging already seems a historical '90s paradigm; bright primary colours, elemental stage and props, relishing the novelties of ethnic takes in costume and gesture. These range from kabuki, via the Carnatic, to the great hooped petticoats of the mid-18th century (for both male and female characters). In truth there is perhaps an excess of oriental gesturing. After the initial strangeness I found this generally enjoyable if sometimes teetering on the edge of tiresomeness – at times I felt as if I were present at an Edward Gorey fantasy of opera by semaphore; but let that pass. After all, the opera is set in the Crimea which has for millennia been a crossroads between European and Asian cultures. The stage business certainly offered some answer to the present day problem of what to do during the long repeated sections of arias, both for the singer him or her self and for everyone else temporarily stranded on stage while the music takes its course.

Richard Hickox as conductor gave a measured support throughout the opera, keeping things moving nicely along and bringing out the few moments of woodwind or horn writing that seem to foreshadow the richness of later Mozart. It is perhaps only in the arias of Aspasia and Sifare, as they contemplate death in Act II that we get a hint of the emotional intensity which the composer was eventually able to conjure.

The singing however seemed to me almost all that could be desired. In the title role was Bruce Ford, the only member who was also in the cast of the original Covent Garden production. He dealt with great aplomb both with the cruelly high tessitura of his part and the extravagance (and weight) of his costume. Sifare and Farnace were originally castrati roles; here they were sung by Sally Matthews and the counter-tenor David Daniels. Marzio, the Roman general was given a suitably pawky but vigorous interpretation by Colin Lee. Without detriment to the others, however, the palms must go to Susan Gritton as Ismene and Aleksandra Kurzak as Aspasia for the consistent richness and beauty of the melody they produced.

These outstanding performances convincingly vindicate the individual numbers of the music, and are particularly gratifying at a time when such uniform quality of performance at Covent Garden seems to be very much the exception rather than the rule. As an opera, the evening is justified by the piquant production rather than by any intrinsic theatrical merit. Contemporary producers are however rapidly running out of quirky ways of producing opera seria. Nicholas Hytner's famous Xerxes for the ENO is an outstanding example, as apparently is Glyndebourne's new cocktail-set Giulio Cesare (being given a concert performance at the Proms on the 23rd August); although Handel, who provides an engaging edge of humour and satire in his settings, lends himself more easily to this sort of whimsicality. I don't see, or foresee, any great rush to bring the operas of other composers of the period to the stage. While I am very glad to have had this opportunity of seeing Mitridate live, I expect most of my future intake of opera seria (except for Handel) to be via CD highlights, like Cecilia Bartoli's wonderful Vivaldi album.

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