Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Mitridate, re di Ponto
Barry Banks (tenor) – Mitridate; Miah Persson (soprano) – Aspasia; Sophie Bevan (soprano) – Sifare; Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor) – Farnace; Klara Ek (soprano) – Ismene; Robert Murray (tenor) – Marzio; Anna Devin (soprano) – Arbate
The Orchestra of Classical Opera/Ian Page
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, 12–26 July 2013
Libretto with English translation enclosed
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD400 [4 CDs: 70:50 + 60:59 + 45:20 + 47:09]
The opera seria Mitridate, re di Ponto was written in Italy in 1770, when Mozart was on tour there with his father. The libretto was written by Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi, based on Racine’s tragedy Mithridate. Recent research has shown that the model for the work was an opera by Josef Mysliveček, who visited Mozart in Bologna several times during the summer when the 14-year-old Austrian was working on Mitridate. Obviously he could give some advice and Mozart even incorporated some motifs from his older friend. Due to Mozart’s age some of the singers were sceptical as to his ability – and he also came from a German-speaking country – and had him rewrite several numbers according to their wishes. Fortunately Mozart’s first attempts have survived and on this set they are enclosed as an appendix. It is fascinating to listen and compare. Most of all one marvels at the precocity and professionalism of this schoolboy.
The opera is no fully-fledged masterwork. He follows the norms for an opera seria with a number of arias separated by – often very long – secco recitatives. A duet and a short final ensemble is all that creates some variation. It is still fascinating to hear how skilful and creative he is and several of the arias very clearly point forward to his mature works. Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail were only 11 and 12 years away. Mitridate was a success when it opened on 26 December 1770 at the Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan. It was played 21 times during the carnival. After that it wasn’t seen again until the twentieth century.
There have been some recordings, the first, I believe, the DG-set from January 1977 with the Mozarteum-Orchester, Salzburg conducted by Leopold Hager and with a stellar cast: Werner Hollweg (Mitridate), Arleen Auger (Aspasia), Edita Gruberova (Sifare), Agnes Baltsa (Farnace), Ileana Cotrubas (Ismene) and David Kübler (Marzio), all of them at the height of their powers. A newcomer has to offer something very special indeed to challenge this classic.
The first thing to observe – and that was also the hang-up in some reviews when the DG-set was first issued – is that Hager’s approach is much more relaxed; I would even say laid-back. Ian Page is far more eager and forward-leaning and there are sharper rhythms. Hager and his orchestral fellows are on a comfortable promenade whereas Page and his friends are jogging with a spring in the step. Timings also confirm this: in practically every musical number Hager needs more time. Let me modify this verdict: Listening to the Hager recording without making direct comparisons it is a satisfying reading but put in relief against Page, the latter is more eager, more youthful, plainly speaking more interesting.
That’s one side of the coin. When it comes to the soloists the situation becomes a little more complicated. It's a question of five legendary world-stars against a group of rising stars. This verdict also has to be qualified. The central couple, King Mitridate and his betrothed Aspasia, are far beyond the rising star level. Barry Banks has long been one of the foremost lyric tenors in the world, firmly established at the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago and other American houses as well as the most prestigious houses in Europe. I have very fond memories of him from performances at the ENO. He has retained the lightness of tone and the often honeyed delivery but added a little more punch which makes him well-nigh ideal for the title role in this opera. Most of his arias are dramatic and Banks characterizes well. The revenge aria Quel ribelle e quell’ingrato (CD 1 tr. 26) is an excellent example. Werner Hollweg on the Hager set is also very good, has an even stronger voice, but Banks is the more expressive of the two.
Aspasia is Miah Persson and few if any can challenge her position as the leading Mozart sopranos in our time. Aspasia is a dream role with a string of pearls of wonderful arias, Mozart obviously in love with the character. She is superb in the first aria of the opera, Al destin, che la minaccia (CD 1 tr. 6) an even more so in that early masterpiece by Mozart Nel grave tormento (CD 2 tr. 13). She also handles the recitatives with great skill and dramatic insight, and she has another highlight in the last act cavatina Pallid’ ombre, che scorgete (CD 3 tr. 8). Her counterpart in the Hager recording is Arleen Auger, who arguably was the Mozartean prima donna assoluta some forty years ago. They are both outstanding and if Miah Persson has the edge on her rival it has to do with her greater involvement.
The rest of the ensemble on the new recording are fresh and youthful but the competition is keen. Sophie Bevan’s Sifare has to compete with a young Edita Gruberova in freshest voice. Although Ms Bevan has admirable coloratura technique, Gruberova at slightly slower speed is more secure and has more character – even if some of her coloratura is very similar to a little dog barking. I’m talking of the first act aria Parto: Nel gran cimento. When we reach act II and the noble aria Lungi da te, mio bene (CD 2 tr. 11), the one with the French horn, splendidly played by Gavin Edwards, she grows to the challenge and is close to the equal of Gruberova, not least through her lovely pianissimo singing. This is one of the great moments in the opera and one senses more than an embryo to the dramatic music to come within a decade.
Sifare is Mitridate’s younger son. As his younger son, Farnace, we hear the excellent counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo — what an ever-growing number of fantastic counter-tenors we have today. The young Agnes Baltsa for Hager is very good but Zazzo’s bright and vibrant tone and dramatic involvement is even better suited to the role. Gone are the days when counter-tenors were just faint and bloodless copies of real mezzos. This is full-blooded singing of the first order.
The somewhat secondary role of Ismene — she has only one aria in each act — was sung by one of my eternal favourites, Ileana Cotrubas, on the Hager recording. Her rather occluded tone and sensitive phrasing made her one of the most touching lyric sopranos of her generation. She is a lovely Ismene, but Klara Ek, Swedish like Miah Persson, is in no way inferior. Her voice is quite different from that of Cotrubas: bright, clear and beautiful, she has a fine trill and her phrasing is extremely musical. Her act I aria, In faccia all’aggetto (CD 1 tr. 23) was a revelation. She is very good in the recitatives and the following two arias just confirm her excellence. It is a lovely voice and she has all the technical attributes as well. Just lend an ear to the “original” aria on CD 4.
The minor roles as Marzio and Arbate are also well taken and the recording is vivid and lifelike. While I will not scrap the old Hager recording it now has a worthy competitor or, if you like, replacement that should be attractive to all Mozart lovers.
CD 4: The original versions:
1. No. 1, Aria: Al destin che la minaccia (Aspasia) [8:06]
2. No. 8, Cavata: Se di lauri il crine adorno (Mitridate) [3:55]
3. No. 9, Aria: In faccia all’aggetto (Ismene) [4:36]
4. No. 13, Aria: Lungi da te, mio bene (Sifare) [9:38]
5. No. 14, Aria: Nel grave tormento (Aspasia) [5:14]
6. No. 16, Aria: Son reo; l’error confesso (Farnace) [5:04]
7. No. 18, Duetto: Se viver non degg’io (Sifare, Aspasia) [7:54]
8. No. 20, Aria: Vado incontro al fato estremo (Mitridate) [2:37]