Notes and Editorial Reviews
An opera seria in three acts: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Libretto: Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi Director: Graham Vick Conductor: Paul Daniel Cast: Arbate - Jacquelyn Fugelle Sifare - Ann Murray Aspasia - Luba Orgonasova Farnace: Jochen Kowalski Marzio: Justin Lavender Mitridate: Bruce Ford Ismene: Lillian Watson Sung in Italian with English subtitles.
R E V I E W:
A thought provoking production of early Mozart excellently performed.
The playwright Racine wove real historical persons into this fictitious plot. From that play Cinga-Santi wrote the libretto and the then 14-year-old Mozart wrote the music: under pressure. The background story is recorded on the screen during the overture. In
substance, Mitridate was King of Pontus from 120–63 BC. He was then Rome’s most effective enemy having taken from it swathes of Greece and Asia Minor. It took three wars against him for the Romans to wreak vengeance and destroy him. The opera takes place at Nymphaeum at the end of his life after his final defeat.
Mitridate had reported his own death to test the loyalty of his two sons Farnace and Sifare having left his betrothed Aspasia ‘at home’. Inevitably his two sons court her. Farnace has long had Roman sympathies –with the offer of the throne of Nymphaeum on Mitridate’s final defeat. Sifare remains true to his Father politically but his advances to Aspasia are reciprocated.
On his return Mitridate brings Ismene a Parthian princess betrothed to Farnace whom Farnace rejects. Mitridate discovers the political and social intrigues and promises death to all putting Farnace in chains immediately. He leaves for a final battle. The Roman tribune Marzio releases Farnace who rediscovers his filial duty and sets fire to the Roman fleet. Mitridate fatally wounds himself (better than death at the hand of the enemy?) leaving the younger people reconciled to each other and to continue the war against Rome.
If that was not sufficient for the 14 year old composer, he faced writing and re-writing the arias in less than three months because he composed for, and with, the engaged singers who could be decidedly temperamental about opportunities for vocal display – or conversely very supportive: as the prima donna who refused to introduce arias written by Gasparini for his same opera. All prejudice against Mozart’s youthfulness was ended at the first performance. The performance was repeated 21 times. It then disappeared from the repertoire until the last century.
Never having been performed at Covent Garden this production was commissioned for the Mozart bi-centenary of 1991. It was recorded for this DVD in 1993 and revived in 1994. Jeremy Isaacs considered it “the most perfect production up to then of (his) time as General Director (of Covent Garden)”: (Jeremy Isaacs, Never Mind the Moon Bantam Press, 1999, p.177).
That is an incredibly strong statement that it is impossible to analyse without seeing all the other productions during his time. However, what I can say without fear of contradiction is that this DVD will not leave you without some strong opinions. This opera and this production in particular, are not for the operatic novice. Despite regular cutting of the recitatives they are still very long and the da capo arias with their oft repeated sections or lines need operatic experience and/or a deep love of coloratura to appreciate them. An eighteenth century 14 year old boy superstar wrote them but a twenty-first century average teenager or non-aficionado could just be put off for life.
Bruce Ford (Mitridate) is in superb voice. This is a youthful Ford, not yet 40, at the height of his operatic power. His cavata in Act 1 Se di lauri il crine adorno (no. 8 – see later for a note about track/aria numbering) evinces the tired defeated and defiant leader moved in his aria at the end of that Act to robust condemnation of his elder son Farnace for his disloyalty. Similarly his aria condemning his younger son Già di pietà (no. 17) is delivered with powerful vocal simplicity and strong acting. Superb enunciation and clarity of notes with his distinctive timbre make this role a joy to hear.
Luba Orgonasova (Aspasia) focuses intently on her role and wisely takes the first aria down a peg or two from awesome coloratura to a more controlled and well paced display. Throughout she is excellent in her portrayal and in her interaction with others: this is an Aspasia whose feelings cannot be mistaken. Pallid’ ombra (no 21) is perhaps the most well known of her arias and Orgonasova does not disappoint with her superb delivery, excellent dynamics and strong colouring. She moves seamlessly from unsettling recitative into a tranquil acceptance of her own death.
Ann Murray is the loyal son Sifare – a ‘trouser’ role that is meat and drink to her. However dare I wish that she would just rein in slightly the power of her voice. For me, and I emphasise that, the application of full power to her otherwise lovely vocal instrument gives it an unnecessary harshness of edge. Contrast that with the exquisite beauty of her resigned and gentle farewell to Aspasia Lungi da te (no13) with it horn obbligato. Here Mozart pays lip service to the da capo concept with only a slight increase of tempo for the second subject without disturbing the tenderness of the farewell.
Jochen Kowalski very obviously relishes his role as the duplicitous Farnace. I would place a considerable sum of money on him regretting that Cigna-Santi converted him to a loving son at the end instead of leaving him duplicitously loyal to Rome as in Racine’s play. Whilst it may be that he has not the strongest voice at the lower end of his register he more than compensates with an otherwise virtuoso performance. He responds to all Mozart’s demands for colouring. He is a totally convincing plotter and when lit from below has a delicious frisson of evil. Was it Graham Vick or he who decided on that delightful stab of his own cloak with his sword to convey his feelings for his father.
Lillian Watson (Ismene) is the consummate coloratura soprano. It is not a role for pyrotechnics: but it does afford opportunities for runs and trills with convincing professionalism of colouring and technique that shine like a beacon.
Jacquelyn Fugelle (Arbace) despatches her single aria, which has limited coloratura, with almost nonchalant ease. Marzio, sung by Justin Lavender, has more scope for vocal display in his one aria. I am not sure that his coloratura style (instead of just the notes, a series of ‘ha-has’) entirely suited the music but it made a clear distinction for his Roman role – the voice of temptation to Farnace: the throne and vengeance.
What I found disconcerting during that aria was the choreography for his three soldiers moving in the background. When it got to the slow goose-step to accompany part of the aria I thought the choreography went beyond the distracting and entered the realms of the silly. Mitridate, Ismene and Arbate also have their followers. No choreography for the Arbate supporters but Ismene’s Parthian escort and Mitridate’s Royal Guard indulged in movements that at best are reasonably uninteresting and at worst distracting – particularly when the camera focuses on them to the extent that they are more than incidental.
Conversely the orchestral playing under Paul Daniel is superbly supportive revealing most of the nuances of the young composer’s writing from accompaniment of fierce verbal onslaught through to great lyricism and tonal beauty.
The sets are simple, opening with a wreathed cenotaph, later using a series of large deeply coloured screens with a bare stage and limited additional props. If it was pence on the sets then it was very many pounds on the costumes. So fascinating are they that I sought help. The Royal Opera House said that the programme contained no details and that they had no current email address for either Paul Brown or even Graham Vick to which they could forward my queries. Disappointing. So watch it and speculate: Noh masks; sixteenth century hobby horses; extended pannier dress; samurai influence; Farnace the sinister left hander (no armour on right shoulder in last Act); Russian doll dress and ‘blob’ cheek make-up; the tomb / flame for the unknown warrior; jousting favours. I could go on and on. Make your own list: this production will certainly provoke thought at all levels.
All that is excellently stimulating. Where the presentation lets itself down is at the humdrum booklet level of aria numbers. It lists on the last page the aria numbers and uses Mozart’s numbers giving the characters singing them. The very helpful booklet synopsis refers to the arias by name and not number. What a pity numbers were not added to that text to enable one to cross – refer particularly bearing in mind the omission of arias 5 and 12. A small point but somewhat frustrating.
-- Robert McKechnie, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Mitridate, rè di Ponto, K 87 (74a) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Bruce Ford (Tenor),
Jochen Kowalski (Counter Tenor),
Ann Murray (Mezzo Soprano),
Jacquelyn Fugelle (Soprano),
Luba Orgonasova (Soprano),
Justin Lavender (Tenor),
Lillian Watson (Soprano)
Written: 1770; Milan, Italy
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