Friday, February 26, 2016

Mozart - Mitridate - Paris

     When one thinks of Mozart operas usually the first works to come to mind are the 3 buffo operas that Mozart composed with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte). Next perhaps one's mind might drift over to the Singspiel operas - Abduction from the Seraglio and Magic Flute and finally, last but not least, one might consider the seria operas - Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito.  But there are more operas.  Mozart composed several other operas most of which are not performed very often.  This list includes the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto. This opera was composed by Mozart when he was 14!!!! And once you get over the fact that he composed it when he was 14 - did I say he was 14 when he wrote this opera - you can begin to see why it is not very often performed.  The plot is convoluted and rather, well, ridiculous - typical I suppose of seria, but still.  The young Mozart seemed to really like revenge arias because the opera is packed with them - if you know Idomeneo think of Elektra's arias and multiply by, well, enough to fill 3 hours. Everyone it seems has a reason to sing a revenge aria.  There are a few non-revenge moments which are slower and more introspective, but they usually are set in the middle of fast and furious. This could become tedious - except for the absolutely amazing singing by the Paris cast, but I get ahead of myself.  But at the same time, young Mozart exhibits an amazing knowledge of the voice and seems able to compose for it very well. And there are all kinds of little hints of great things to come - the range leaps for example will appear in Cosi's Fiordiligi.  One element that is missing is of course the one operatic element which Mozart came to develop to such a high degree, and that is the ensemble. There are no ensembles in Mitridate to speak of.  There is a wonderful duet at the end of act 2 between Aspasia and Sifare ("Se viver non degg’io") - brilliantly fast and furious by the way.  And then there is a very beautiful aria sung by Sifare with obligato horn ("Lungi da te").  There is also a final ensemble which is very brief.  It is not surprising that there are no ensembles, Mozart was obviously imitating what was current and popular in the seria world, and ensembles were few and far between.  Not until Mozart himself develops and uses the ensemble to brilliant effect in the Da Ponte arias do they become a standard part of the operatic form.
     This brings me to this performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, and the singing is absolutely terrific by the entire cast:  Michael Spyres - Mitridate; Patricia Petibon - Aspasia; Myrto Papatanasiu - Sinfarne; Christope Dumaux - Farnace; Sabine Devieilhe - Ismane, and an unlisted tenor as Marzio and an unnamed soprano as Arbate.  Note that there are no low voices in this cast at all.  The original cast consists of 2 tenors, 2 female sopranos, a countertenor (alto castrato) and 2 soprano castrati.  Thankfully there were no castrati in this cast.  Christophe Dumaux was the lone counter-tenor and he is spectacular.  The other male soprano roles are taken by women.  And the level of musicianship, style and singing beauty could simply not be higher.  It is worth watching just to glory in the incredible singing by every member of this cast.  Thankfully the long and probably tedious recitatives were drastically reduced, but every accompanied Recit and aria was included.  The period orchestra is the Ensemble Concert D'Astrée and is conducted by Emmanuelle Haim.
     Now to the production.  I simply did not get it.  I read the synopsis and tried to follow the libretto but found the setting and production very confusing.  It seems to be (at first anyway) set in an old theater in which a group of folks have assembled to put on a play and Mitridate becomes the play.  But it is not at all clear and was terribly confusing.  What I was reading in the libretto and what I was seeing on stage bore no resemblance to each other at all.  I am still not sure who the two children were supposed to be and why they kept wandering around and why the boy child was given a crucial line near the end.  I am also not quite sure why they all kept changing clothes - out clothes only - putting on and taking off a character?  Was the story line supposed to parallel their personal lives and the relationship problems they (we) all have.  Lovers, parents, children - all in conflict - all struggling with betrayal.  So then what is the connection with the Roman army in all of this.  Admittedly part of the problem is the confused nature of the original libretto, it is not a good libretto and I certaibly have no problem with the stage director trying to do something to make it sensible.  But, he didn't.  He made it worse.  And he was greeted with a deafening chorus of boos when he walked on stage. I think he might have had an interesting idea or two, but it was just so unclear.
     I recommend watching this production just for the incredible vocal artistry of the cast.  You can find it in two places:
Or if that doesn't work - try this:

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