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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mitridate, Re di Ponto, K. 87 (74a) (1770)
Mitridate – Barry Banks (tenor)
Aspasia – Miah Persson (soprano)
Sifare – Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Farnace – Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
Ismene – Klara Ek (soprano)
Marzio – Robert Murray (tenor)
Arbate – Anna Devin (soprano)
The Orchestra of Classical Opera/Ian Page
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, London, 12-26 July 2013
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD400 [4 CDs: 70:50 + 60:59 + 45:20 + 47:09]

Mitridate, Mozart's first opera seria and written for Milan when he was only 14, has undergone a revival of interest recently, with productions at Covent Garden and Salzburg, as well as recordings from Christophe Rousset and Ádám Fischer. Rightly so, as Ian Page's recording amply demonstrates. This was the second instalment in his series of recordings of the composer's complete operas for Signum, and he argues as convincing a case for it as you'll find anywhere. I was rather rude about the opera when I heard Fischer’s recording in 2010, but Page’s interpretation has made me change my mind. He reveals it to be a masterpiece of variety, pacing and colour, whatever the composer's age, and his direction gives a coherent shape to the whole piece. The action zips along with energy, and each aria, so different from the one before, seems to open up a whole new landscape for the listener to explore. It's very exciting, and if you already know Mozart's later masterpieces then I urge you to seek out this one to see what you're missing. You might well find it hard to believe that it's the same composer: this is Mozart proving himself to be the master of the genres of an earlier time, and Mitridate, even more than Idomeneo, is like the sun going down gloriously on the age of opera seria.

As with Page’s recording of Il Re Pastore, the orchestral sound makes you sit up and take notice right from the outset. It's a period band, no question, but the sound is not in the least abrasive. Instead it's busy and attention grabbing but manages lovely sweetness from the winds (the central Andante grazioso section of the overture is delightful) as well as clarity of articulation from the strings in the bustling faster moments. This also, like so much else in this recording, speaks highly of Ian Page's direction. Throughout, he is utterly sensitive to the conventions of the genre and knows when to obey them and when to subvert them. He has a lovely way with the recitatives, too, keeping them alive and full of energy, and I was only very rarely tempted to skip over them for the next aria, which is saying something for an opera like this.

Barry Banks is marvellous as Mitridate himself, streets ahead of the disappointing Mathias Zachariassen for Fischer. His light tenor is well suited to the part, bringing superb agility with brightness and clarity. His opening Se di lauri is languid and beautiful, full of the relief of a man coming home, and, while you might want a little more power from his first rage aria, Quel ribelle, you have to admire the energy and accuracy with which Banks attacks it. His second one, Giŕ di pietŕ mi spoglio, is much more successful, bristling with exciting top notes. The gentle reflectiveness of his aria of affection for Sifare, Tu, che fedel mi sei, suits his voice well, and the bravura Vado incontro is thrilling.

Miah Persson is luxury casting as Aspasia, and she brings marvellous tone and technique to the part. The heroic coloratura in her opening aria is absolutely dazzling, as is the way she leaps up the scale at no notice whatever. She evokes agitation without breathlessness in Nel sen mi palpito, and Nel grave tormento alternates between languid beauty and even more dazzling coloratura. She saves the best for last, though, with her sensational cavatina Pallid'ombre, where she seems totally at one with the orchestra, weaving a beautiful web of sound that is utterly seductive.

As Sifare, Sophie Bevan is seldom called on to be as dazzling in her approach, but her coloratura is every bit as fine, and comparing her and Persson's opening pairs of arias is fascinating; one is called on to be restrained, the other to hurl out with abandon, both thrilling. Their duet at the end of Act 2, the only ensemble in the entire piece, except for the final chorus, is a highlight. Lungi da te, with its sensational horn obbligato, is poignant and full of longing, while Tu sai per chi m'accese seems to float along with a pastoral lilt. Her third act aria, her only fast number in the opera, sounds every bit as good.

Counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo sings Farnace with unfailing skill and sensitivity to the demands of the part. His tone might not be as full as one would like in his opening aria, but you can't fault his flexibility, and he is more exciting in Va, l'error mio palesa, while sounding properly malignant (and not in the least repentant) in Son reo. His beautiful last aria of repentance, slow and thoughtful, is his finest number and gets the finest performance.

Klara Ek sings Ismene with purity and clarity in the upper texture, setting her apart distinctively from the high voices around her, and So quanto a te dispiace moves with a nice mixture of the reflective and the energetic. Robert Murray sings Marzio's only aria with lightness and flexibility, even if some of his coloratura is ever-so-slightly off, and Anna Devin sings the tiny role of Arbate with clarity and straightforward purity that is, nevertheless, still very beautiful.

This recording of the opera easily trumps Ádám Fischer’s, and even rivals Christophe Rousset’s starrier account. The packaging is classy, with full texts and translations to go alongside Page's own scholarly essay, and as a generous appendix – and a USP for this set – you also get a bonus disc of the original versions of several of the arias, the only recording to offer these. It's great fun, full of jewels, and it gives you a real insight into the first creators of these roles who insisted these originals be ditched in favour of the ones on the other discs, which suited them better. There is some marvellous archaeology for the listener here, and some real delights for anyone ready to explore this opera.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Göran Forsling



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