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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770) [152.00]
text by Cigna-Santi after Racine/Parini.
Rockwell Blake ... Mitridate, King of Pontus
Yvonne Kenny ... Aspasia, betrothed to Mitridate, beloved of Sifare, desired by Farnace (got that?)
Ashley Putnam ... Sifare, son of Mitridate, beloved of Aspasia
Brenda Boozer ... Farnace, son of Mitridate, betrothed to Ismene
Patricia Rozario ... Ismene, daughter of the king of Parthia, betrothed to Farnace
Christian Papis ... Marzio, Roman Tribune
Catherine Dubosc ... Arbate, governor of Nymphæa
Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon/Theodore Guschlbauer
Recorded live Lyon, France, 1986.
Staged (1983) by Jean-Claude Fall, designed by Gérard Didier.
Video direction by Bernard Maigrot.
PAL 4:3 letterbox. Sound 2.0 stereo, 5.1 Dolby Digital, 5.1 dts surround.
Subtitles Italiano, English, Deutsch, Français. Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
DVD 9 Region 0 [all regions]
EUROARTS 2053609 [152.00]



Comparison recordings:

Daniel, Organosova, Murray, Kowalski, Watson, Royal Opera. Region 2 PAL Pioneer DVD 8931 [NTSC region 1 Kultur DVD D1490. English subtitles only]

Harnoncourt, Kenny, Murray, Winbergh, Gjevang, Concentus Musicus Wien. Staged by J. P. Ponnelle. London/Decca laserdisk 071 507-1. [not currently available on DVD]

Is an opera written by a fourteen-year-old worth producing for video three times? Oh, my yes! If Mozart had died immediately after writing this opera, he would still be reckoned as one of the greatest opera composers of all time. Everything you expect to hear in the later Mozart works is contained here, with the added advantage that for most of us this is brand new music so in addition there is the sense of discovery on the parts of the composer, the performers, and the audience. When you become acquainted with Mitridate, however, it won’t be unfamiliar for long, for you will want to hear it often and get to know it well. Is this as great as Don Giovanni? Maybe not, but it stands easily alongside Idomeneo, which must also be in any serious Mozart collection.

The action of this opera takes place in the long-vanished Crimean city of Nymphaea, an ally of Pontus in its long war with Rome, but you’d never know it to look at any of these performances. This Opéra Lyon staging appears to take place at a French Foreign legion outpost in Morocco. The Royal Opera staging is in and out of feudal Japan, while the Harnoncourt staging is the most “realistic” in that it is filmed in a classical theatre (The Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza), probably just about what Mozart would have expected the staging and costumes to look like. However, Harnoncourt employs a boy soprano in the part of Arbate, and most commentators find this musically unsatisfactory.

You will notice that there is some overlapping of casts since this is difficult but unfamiliar music and few singers will invest the effort to learn the role. Yvonne Kenny sings Aspasia both for Guschlbauer and Harnoncourt. Ann Murray sings Sifare for both Daniel and Harnoncourt.

In terms of singing, the Daniel recording has the clear edge. Orgonasova’s Aspasia is to my taste one of the greatest operatic performances ever recorded, and Kowalski (Farnace), Murray (Sifare), and Watson (Ismene) represent the best of these three performances, as actors as well as singers. They triumph over “innovative” staging and costumes that are at times quite effective and at others ludicrous, verging on silliness. Some commentators found the costumes and staging so distracting as to render the performance totally unwatchable, others found it positively, brilliantly, arresting. Daniel’s conducting is also clearly the most urgent and dramatic. 

But this Lyon staging is by far the most realistic, non-stylised, and hence most credible. The acting is superb, the singing very fine. Most especially the three women singing male roles project themselves fully and convincingly into character. People do a lot of striding purposefully across the stage, as though trains were arriving and departing off-scene.* The two stage levels make credible the frequent overheard conversations on which the plot revolves. A little more light (and shadow) would be helpful; we seem to be perpetually outdoors in bluish moonlight, except when a character is abruptly spotlit in full color.

At the finale of the opera Sifare, Aspasia, Farnace, Ismene, and Arbate sing:

Non si ceda al campidoglio,
si resista a quell'orgoglio,
che frenarsi ancor non sa.
Guerra sempre e non mai pace
da noi abbia un genio altero,
che pretende al mondo intero
d'involar la libertà.

He who doesn't surrender to that distant capitol,

he who withstands that pride—

that yet does not restrain itself....

That arrogant spirit

that sets out to abolish Liberty

in the whole world

will always have war from us and never peace. 

While singing this stirring hymn of resistance to tyranny, the three women in the cast singing men’s roles pull off their masculine headgear, shake out their long feminine tresses, and lock arms with each other and the other women on stage. Considering that only Mitridate and Fulvio in this cast are men, thus that this is certainly a women’s opera, and considering that all the passionate love music we have heard during the previous three hours has been sung from one woman to another, perhaps we are justified in interpreting this gesture as one of Lesbian or at least Feminist solidarity. Perhaps just as interesting is what this stirring text of resistance to the tyrannical vanity of distant capital cities meant to the Austrian dominated Milanese in 1770? Or to Racine’s Parisian audience a hundred years before? 

The character of Mitridate is unpleasant and unsympathetic, not surprising since before the stage action begins he is in the process of losing his kingdom and his fiancée, his own death certainly and rapidly approaching. Perhaps he can be forgiven for not trusting anybody, turning on his family and friends, colluding with his enemies, being willing to try almost anything to deflect the tide of circumstance. A happy resolution for the lovers Sifare and Aspasia is almost too much to hope for, but hope for it we do, and are not disappointed — by the skin of everybody’s teeth, naturally, in the best operatic tradition. Historically speaking, Mitridate’s suicide in 63 BCE to avoid capture was a perfectly sensible course since the Romans were noted for torturing conquered rulers before executing them publicly in a cruel and humiliating manner. Sifare and Farnace (if, in fact, there ever actually were such individuals) held off the Romans for barely two more years before Pontus and all of Anatolia was annexed by Rome.

Paul Shoemaker

*Think about it: a real caravan might take a full day to arrive, and the travellers would stagger slowly on stage exhausted. It’s only on a train where you’re tired of sitting for so long and are ready to jump up and run.




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