Organosova, Murray, Kowalski, Watson, Royal Opera. Region 2
PAL Pioneer DVD 8931 [NTSC region 1 Kultur DVD D1490. English
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
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
that yet does not restrain
That arrogant spirit
that sets out to abolish
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.
*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.