Listening to Mitridate it is all too
easy to forget that this is the work of a 14-year old with barely
any experience of opera and none whatsoever in writing for a large-scale
theatre. During his Italian tour with his father in 1769-70, the
young Mozart so impressed Count Firmian of Milan that he commissioned
an opera from him to be performed in the 1770 season. The opera
was to be premiered in the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, one of
Italyís three leading theatres of the time. That Mozart could
even attempt such a task at such a callow age and with so little
experience is remarkable. That he should succeed so well is nothing
short of a miracle!
Itís important to keep reminding yourself of this as you listen to the opera because it isnít an instantly appealing piece. Itís a true opera seria and so Mozart has to abide by a number of conventions which donít always appeal to a modern audience, most notably the long arias strung out between huge stretches of recitative. Furthermore his inexperience shows in a few places, such as casting Aspasiaís first aria, a plea to be released from the rigours of fate, as a storming piece of coloratura bombast. Likewise the staccato writing for the angry Mitridate as he rages against his treacherous son comes dangerously close to the comic antics of Don Curzio in Figaro; for more on this see the article on the opera in the Penguin Opera Guide. That said, there is a great deal of hugely attractive music, most notably the gorgeous Act 2 duet for Sifare and a French horn, here sung and played most beautifully. The drama of the accompagnato recitatives is incredibly striking, especially the sequence in Act 3 when Aspasia is presented with a cup of poison to drink, and the opera isnít a collection of wall-to-wall da capo arias Ė there is plenty of variety and drama.
Adam Fischer pays this music the great compliment of taking it seriously and, following on from his recent recording of Lucio Silla with these Danish forces, he does a very good job of reminding us of just how attractive the precocious boyís genius could be. The finest thing about this recording is the playing of the small Danish Radio Sinfonietta. The use of modern instruments instantly sets this recording apart from the setís chief rival on Decca with Christoph Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques. The playing fizzes with period awareness while placing it firmly in the same lineage as Idomeneo, Tito and the Da Ponte trilogy. Fischerís sense of pacing is strong too, all-important in the recitatives which, while one might wish they were a little briefer, seldom send one reaching for the fast-forward button.
His singers are a mixed bag. His decision not to use any counter-tenors means that we are confronted with a battalion of sopranos. This isnít a bad thing in itself, but it makes for very little contrast in the nearly three hours of music. The voices can sound rather similar too, which doesnít help. During the early section of the duet for Sifare and Aspasia that ends Act 2 it sounds just like one singer in an aria rather than two voices alternating in duet. That said, it is these two characters who have the most notable voices in the set. Maria Fontosh sings the castrato role of Sifare with beauty, tenderness and just the right touch of heroism in the final act. The unmissable Henriette Bonde-Hansen is Aspasia: her very first aria, with its storming coloratura features a take-no-prisoners accompaniment, while make your hair stand on end. Itís just a shame that there is nothing like it to follow in the rest of the opera! Lisa Larssonís Ismene challenges her for precision of coloratura, but her voice is overall much sweeter and lighter, while Kiristina HammarstrŲm captures well the grasping character of the treacherous Farnace.
What a shame that the casting of Mitridate himself was not stronger! Mathias Zachariassen is just not cut out for the challenges of this role. He is noticeably stretched by the challenges of his entrance aria and his effortful runs and leaps make for very uncomfortable listening. He is understandably more settled in the gentler numbers, but I could never shake off the feeling that he just was not happy in the role. This comes through too many times, detracting from both the drama and the music, most notably in his rather emasculated rage aria in Act 2. Itís such a pity, and one would reasonably have expected that such a central character should have been cast from more strength.
So if you need modern instruments in this work then you should explore this edition with a degree of confidence for the women and the excellent playing. However, if youíre fine with period instruments then the superior singing on Roussetís version will still win you over. Itís surprising to find stars like Sabbatini, Bartoli and Dessay giving their time to this minor work, and there is even a tiny cameo from Juan Diego Florez, but they all sound fantastic and they revel in the opportunities to show off as, surely, must have the original cast in Mozartís day. Rousset had been criticised for turning the opera into a star vehicle, but when it sounds as good as it does there then thatís just fine with me. A good job from Fischer, but the competition pips him to the post.
The booklet notes are first rate, by the way, and include full texts and translations. The sound quality is superb.