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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Mozart,  ‘Mitridate, Re di Ponto’ Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, soloists, cond. Richard Hickox, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 5 July 2005  (ME)



Pietro Benedetti, the first singer of the role of Sifare in this opera, apparently told Leopold Mozart that if it was not a success, he would allow himself to be castrated all over again. Happily this proved unnecessary, since this dramma per musica, written when the composer was 14, delighted its first audiences in Milan – and then promptly fell from grace until 200 years later when it was revived at Salzburg in 1971. It is, of course, all about vocal display, the best analogy for a modern audience being a dramatized Handel oratorio, and to stage it successfully you need a director capable of respecting its conventions as well as a cast who are up to the treacherous demands of the singing – fortunately on this occasion the Royal Opera fulfilled everything required, almost to the point of making one wonder why the piece is not more frequently heard. Almost, but not quite.



Graham Vick’s production, with striking designs by Paul Brown, was originally seen in 1991, and it has lost nothing of its original style and appropriateness; what a joy to see such noble effects being achieved with such essentially simple means, and to hear singers able to devote their energies to making the words and music tell rather than having to participate in yet another joyless, supposedly ‘updated’ sex n’ bling fest. Of course, it’s the costumes here which hold all the colour and fascination for the eye, and rightly so: when Mozart died, his wardrobe was not that of a pauper but a man fascinated by fashion and elegant lavishness, and he wrote for an audience who shared that passion to the same degree as they relished extravagance in vocal prowess. Movement was necessarily simple, given that many of the costumes were extremely heavy as well as a couple of metres wide, and as with the very best productions of Handel operas and oratorios, the characters were allowed to take centre stage whilst expressing particular moments of crisis in their lives.


Bruce Ford is the most experienced Mitridate around; he has a superb voice, not at all sweet or mellifluous but agile, slightly astringent in tone and capable of immense flights of virtuosity. On this occasion he was slightly less than his best, with some notes sounding a little anxious: his beautiful first aria, ‘Se di lauri il crine adorno’ so evocative of Idomeneo’s landing on the shores of Crete, found his tone somewhat restricted but he gave a rousing account of ‘Quel ribelle e quell’ingrato.’ His impersonation of the fallible king was as subtle as permitted by the role, his recitatives being especially telling – and how right that his final words of acceptance and reconciliation were allowed to make their impact unhindered by any superfluous gloss.


Sally Matthews was a stunning Sifare: this is a hugely demanding role which this young singer made into a triumph in every way, with florid passagework of confidence and brilliance, elegantly musical phrasing of recitative and highly convincing acting. It’s never easy to be the good guy, but she showed that it can be done even if the opposing ‘baddie’ is sung by the expected star of the show. Sifare’s music is the most beautiful in the opera, his aria ‘Lungi da te, mio bene’ looking forward to Mozart’s future greatness, and Matthews sang it wonderfully, her voice blending ideally with the melancholy horn obbligato. The duet with Aspasia, ‘Se viver non degg’io’ was the sort of thing which lovers of florid vocal display dream about but so rarely experience  - great stuff.

Sifare’s brother and rival was sung by David Daniels, who was clearly the reason why many of the audience were there: after every aria the Danielles bellowed ‘Brahhvo!’ even when the singing was unremarkable, which was the case most of the time. I found his performance lazy, as indeed I have done in the past with this singer. It is, of course, a lovely countertenor voice, much to be savoured in recital and on disc, but thus far I have felt that in his ‘live’ performances he tends to coast somewhat, and this was all the more marked here because of the commitment displayed by the others onstage. It probably did not help that both ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ and ‘Già dagli occhi velo è tolto’ were both delivered from a semi-recumbent posture: the former entirely lacked the requisite fire, but the closing bars of the latter revealed what a master of the fine phrase Daniels can be.


Aleksandra Kurzak was making her house debut as Aspasia, and she is quite a discovery. This is a vibrant personality, a really outstanding voice with a confident ring and mastery of the highest notes – a highly praised Queen of the Night in Hamburg and Olympia at the Met, she brings that experience to this most fiendish of Mozart’s roles, and she captivated the audience from the first lines of  ‘Al destin’ che la minaccia’ with her fiery coloratura, sympathetic stage presence and understanding of the  role – you really felt that this was what Bernasconi must have been like at the premiere. A notable debut.


Susan Gritton was equally superb as Ismene: her poignant, sensitive voice and presence are ideal for this role, and her noble singing of ‘Tu sai per chi m’accese’ was one of the high points of the evening – her movement, too, was finely done, in a role not so burdened with unwieldy costume as the rest but given almost as much intricacy in gesture as that of a stage dancer. Katie van Kooten sang with authority as Arbate, and Colin Lee made an auspicious house debut in the rather thankless role of Marzio.


The overture might have led one to expect trouble ahead for the singers, since it was taken at a somewhat too stately pace, but Hickox went on to coax remarkably sprightly playing from the orchestra, with the horns especially fine in the obbligatos. This was a great evening for lovers of unashamed vocal virtuosity, of which I am definitely one, and in my opinion it was just what the Royal Opera House should be all about.



Melanie Eskenazi 



Photos © Clive Barda



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