Magnificent Mitridate

A passionate – and musically stellar – production of Mozart’s early opera seria at the Theater an der Wien

Bruce Ford as Mitridate and Bejun Mehta as Famace | Photo: Armin Bardel/ Theater an der Wien

Patricia Petibon as Aspasia in Mitridate | Photo: Armin Bardel/ Theater an der Wien

Bruce Ford and Bejun Mehta

Bruce Ford as Mitridate and Bejun Mehta as Famace | Photo: Armin Bardel/ Theater an der Wien

A tyrant king returns from the battlefield to his destroyed palace, defeated but not bowed. Full of treacherous wiles and murderous intentions, he is still determined to fight again and conquer. Here is manic self-confidence, coupled in the dark depths of the soul, in the constant fear of betrayal for having chosen the path of tyranny over heroism. Mitridate is doomed to suspicion and distrust, which, in this web of deceit and tortuous love triangles, prove to be fully justified.

This is the central figure of Mozart’s first opera seria, written as a fourteen-year-old for the opening of the 1770 winter carnival season in Milan, that Mozart had taken by storm a few months before. Although the challenge was certainly no mean one, to write an Italian opera seria for Italians, Mozart rose to the occasion. Together with his librettist, Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi, he created a work based on Jean-Baptiste Racine’s well-known tragedy, which combined the drama and psychology of the plot with the most glorious arias and orchestral parts. It was an immediate, triumphant success.

Mitridate is a work that has become a favorite on Europe’s stages in recent years, with productions at Covent Garden (with David Daniels as Farnace) and at the Salzburg Festival (with Bejun Mehta in the same role as in this production) that set a high standard to follow.

For the new production at Vienna’s third opera house, the Romanian theater designers Radu and Miruna Boruzescu, have transposed the historical King of Ponto from the 1st century BC to a contemporary scene, creating a depressing, verismo setting with huge, smashed, reinforced concrete boulders, a gaping hole to the sky, and clouds of explosives smoke wafting across the stage. The shades of the tyrants of our time from Ceausescu to Saddam Hussein haunt the space, as sinister plainclothes security agents in suits and homburgs mingle with machine-gun toting soldiers.

Bruce Ford as Mitridate gives a convincing portrayal of a modern-day despot, desperate in his attempt to keep and exert his power over all – the enemy outside his country’s borders, here the Romans, and the enemy in his own family, his two sons, Farnace and Sifare, (originally two castrati roles, here sung by the American countertenor Bejun Mehta and the Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu) and his betrothed, Aspasia (Patricia Petibon), all of whom he suspects of betraying him.

One of the strengths of this production is the credibility of the acting, the singers holding the tension through the recitative passages, and rising to audience-riveting heights in the arias. In this, the whole cast is to be praised, but it would be churlish not to single out Patricia Petibon and Myrtò Papatanasiu for their especially fine dramatic qualities. In the scene where Sifare and Aspasia declare their love for each other and then renounce a future together, he for the sake of filial devotion and she driven by the bonds of duty, their controlled acting comes together with a musical sensitivity to achieve a scene of heart-rending poignancy.

In a production of superlatives, which was duly acclaimed by the first-night audience, the excellence of the musical delivery is a sine qua non. Harry Bicket conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra with verve and a fine-tuned tension in tempo and dynamics, choosing unerringly the right pace for each of the challenging arias, so that the length of the three and a half hour production was never a problem. The orchestra responded with a brilliance of tone and smoothness in the lyrical passages that perfectly matched and supported the soloists’ virtuosity. Hector McDonald deserves a special mention, as the solo horn in the duet with Sifare, in which the instrument was like another voice – how often do we hear this instrument played with such sensitivity and beauty?

Patricia Petibon in Mitridate

Patricia Petibon as Aspasia in Mitridate | Photo: Armin Bardel/ Theater an der Wien

The singers were well matched to their parts, each with a voice perfectly suited to the demanding score and harmonising ideally with each other. Mehta, in a part which he has sung many times and is obviously completely at home in, received enthusiastic applause for his performance. His voice may be slightly lacking in richness, but he makes up for it with a captivating finesse and delicacy of tone, well demonstrated in the piano and pianissimo range. Ford started with a slight forcedness in the upper notes, but soon settled into a solid and well-judged rendition.

But the absolute highlights of the first night were the two main female soloists. Papatanasiu has a stunningly rich voice and an acute musicality, coupled with a contoured sense of drama which makes her seem at ease in this challenging role. Patricia Petibon attained aof presence in her voice in an electrifying performance. This role allowed her to display the full range of her vocal ability, with moments of deep theatrical emotion ranging from fear and revulsion to love, tenderness, sorrow and pity. Displaying these emotions both through her acting and her vocal skills was doubly impressive.

To watch her Aspasia in a white tulle dress, a strange apparition in a war zone, scurrying like a frightened moth from one spot to the next, was to witness an emotionally scarred person. Her brilliant arias expressed these emotions to a high degree of perfection. Christiane Karg, as Ismene, completed a cast of singers who left nothing to be desired.

To quibble about details in such an overwhelmingly successful production is perhaps petty. But does it add anything to the message to have Farnace masturbate on stage? Surely we have moved on from the time when a director needs to provoke the audience? Can’t we just get on with the business of telling the story and building up the characters? Even his rape of Ismene seemed superfluous; we had already got the message that he was a thoroughly despicable man. It was, then, the Canadian director Robert Carsen, who received a few boos at the curtain calls.

Nevertheless, a stellar evening.

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