We are so obsessed with the image of Mozart the child prodigy that it can be easy to forget how marvellous some of his early works are. The conclusion that the music of his youth must be inferior is patronising, ignoring its inherent qualities, and has meant that only his final seven operas are regularly performed. What a privilege, then to have the opportunity to experience his fifth opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto, in its second revival at Covent Garden.
Many of these underperformed early works are surprisingly entertaining, and it’s nice that the Royal Opera is staging a new production of La finta giardiniera in Autimn 2006, as well as this revival of Mitridate. The latter is an opera seria in the style of some of Handel’s most popular works such as Giulio Cesare, with formal arias and accompanied recitatives forming the backbone of the musical discourse.
Two things come across particularly well in this revival. At a local level, the sheer invention of some of the arias and duets is astounding, expressing rage, jealousy, anguish, poignancy and despair in varying measures: one does not need to apologise for the fourteen year old composer’s immature style because it is highly expressive and advanced. Perhaps even more striking, however, is Mozart’s grasp of dramatic timing. Sometimes long stretches of recitative convey information; sometimes linked chains of arias heighten the action as sparring characters spit words of indignation at each other.
The success of the first night was due both to a knock-out cast and the inspired direction of Richard Hickox, the latter in particular. Mozart operas do not always work in a house of this size, as last year’s Così fan tutte showed, but the music was wonderfully pure in this case. Reduced orchestral forces employing early performance practice techniques enabled this clarity, mercifully eschewing excessive vibrato in the strings. The harpsichord and cello continuo group (Christopher Willis and Mark Bethel respectively) paced the recitatives with such inspiration that these often problematic sections of early opera became equally as entertaining as the set pieces.
Mitridate has become something of a signature role for Bruce Ford, and he has just the right kind of clear tone and finely shaped phrasing for this music. Confident from his first appearance through to his suicide scene, Ford magnificently imposed his status in the drama as the King of Pontus.
Which was not easy when his sons Sifare and Farnace were played to such elegant perfection by Sally Matthews and the countertenor David Daniels. Matthews was in particularly fine form, bringing the first scene of Act 1 to an outstanding climax in Soffre il mio cor con pace and devastating the emotions in the Act III aria Se il rigor d’ingrata sorte, a song about finding solace in death.
Mitridate’s betrothed, Aspasia, causes many of the problems of the plot: both the king’s sons desire her, and she is in love with Sifare. Aleksandra Kurzak brought the role to life with tremendous pathos, expressing with great verisimilitude Aspasia’s dilemmas of love and duty. Her plea to Sifare in Act 1 was wonderfully phrased, and she, too, sings movingly of the peace she would find in death, in the Act III aria Pallid’ombre, che scorgete. The other roles were also satisfyingly taken – Young Artist Katie van Kooten (Arbate) and Susan Gritton (Ismene) in particular.
Graham Vick’s Japanese kabuki-style production with designs by Paul Brown is something of an oddity. On the one hand, it suits the stylised opera seria form quite well, and the stark makeup and designs really work in a house of this size. But why the oriental aspects in this tale of Ancient Turkey and Rome?
Some parts are highly effective, with sinister red walls moving in on the characters at times to mirror their moral suffocation, but one could have done quite well without the weird ritualistic war-dances which seem like a cross between Stomp and the Maori haka. These were laughable and an unnecessary prolongation of an already long evening (over three-and-a-half hours). The complete Mitridate apparently takes six hours to perform, so why pare it down then extend it with irrelevant choreographic interpolations?
However, these are minor qualms, for the musical aspect of the evening is so outstanding that it is a must-see for fans of Mozart and early opera in general.