Mitridate, re di Ponto, K87 – opera in three acts to a libretto by Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi after Giuseppe Parini’s Italian translation of Jean Racine’s Mithridate [World premiere staging of original version reconstructed by Ian Page and Stanley Sadie]
Mitridate – Mark Le Brocq
Aspasia – Allison Bell
Sifare – Kishani Jayasinghe
Farnace – Stephen Wallace
Ismene – Mary Nelson
Arbate – sung by Stephanie Marshall, played by Rodopi Gaitanou
The Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company
Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Simon Corder – Production designer
Lise Marker – Costume designer
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: 2 June, 2009
Venue: Sadler’s Wells, London
Continuing to carve out its unrivalled speciality niche in performances of early Mozart operas, The Classical Opera Company and its enterprising conductor Ian Page has now turned its attention to the 14-year-old composer’s “Mitridate, re di Ponto”. Or rather, returned its attentions: the company put on a concert performance in 2004; this is its first fully staged production. Whether Martin Lloyd-Evans’s direction enhanced the performance or not is a moot point.
The most impressive aspect of this venture is Page’s performing edition, devised in partnership with the late Stanley Sadie. When he wrote “Mitridate” for Milan in 1770, the young Mozart had not yet the experience or clout to stand up to the unreasonable demands of opera singers. No doubt suspicious of having to sing music by a child, Milan’s divas insisted on numerous re-writes – to the extent that Mozart ended up replacing around a third of his original material with completely different music.
Arguing convincingly that Mozart’s first thoughts were probably the best, Page restores the original jettisoned arias – two in completions and orchestrations by Sadie. Thus the production justifiably claims to be the “world premiere staging of the ‘original’ version”; although this claim is somewhat undermined by the various cuts Page makes to the rest of the score (mainly recitatives) to keep the opera from outstaying its welcome. Page’s pruning is judicious, however; at a little under three hours (including interval) the length felt just right.
This is a great achievement given that “Mitridate” essentially follows the Baroque opera mould of a string of solo arias, many in da capo form, linked by lengthy recitatives and a convoluted plot revolving around courtly intrigue.The successful pacing was also tribute to Page’s deft conducting, and to the orchestra at his command: the superbly lithe ‘period’-instrument forces made nimble work of the many rapid-fire numbers, and Alastair Ross’s lively harpsichord continuo ensured that the recitatives were kept moving.
Mitridate’s Asian kingdom of Pontus is under siege from imperialist forces. Lloyd-Evans’s production updates the action to a beleaguered desert bunker (such as Al-Qaeda might operate from?), with talk of the “Western enemy” in the translated subtitles adding to the terrorist-organisation impression. So far so ‘relevant’ and plausible. But the cluttered paraphernalia in which it was presented rendered the idea largely incomprehensible for much of Act One.
The design itself is minimalist to the point of conceptual: bare plywood desks and office chairs sat in the middle of an entirely empty and, with no backdrops or scenery, cavernous stage. But the messy hectic feeling came from five large plasma screens displaying a mixture of subtitles and close-up images from cameras dotted around the stage. Adding little other than something different to look at, these gratuitous and often distracting images ranged from irritating zooms on body parts and props to comical facial reaction shots in the style of old soap-operas.
Baroque opera is essentially a static medium, reliant on gesture rather than elaborate staging. So, in what seems a desperate attempt to give the characters something to do in their arias, Lloyd-Evans has them tapping endlessly away at laptops as they sing, infuriatingly engaging with their keyboards rather than the audience. At one particularly ridiculous moment, Farnace, burning with fury at the unexpected arrival of his father Mitridate (in a passionately sung aria by Stephen Wallace), produces a diary from his pocket and appears casually to update his appointments on Outlook Calendar. There was some genuine drama and emotion in Acts Two and Three, however, due partly to more intimate lighting and to more engaging and settled performances.
None of the singers involved are likely to set the operatic world ablaze; some were no more than competent, with much coloratura very shaky. Most impressive were tenor Mark Le Brocq, commanding in the title role, and round-toned, confident soprano Kishani Jayasinghe as his younger son Sifare.
Mozart’s music seems to mature as the opera progresses. From a predominance of flashy showcase arias in Act One, the remaining acts feature more emotionally engaging and sophisticated music in the Gluckian galant manner – there are more than a few fascinating glimpses of Mozart’s mature operatic genius. The work’s only duet, beautifully sung by Jayasinghe and Allison Bell, was a highlight.
Whatever the shortcomings of the production and vocal performances, this was undoubtedly a special occasion in which the power of the young Mozart shone through. The new edition can be warmly welcomed as a great success.