Mitridate is an opera seria written by Mozart when he was a 14 year old, learning his trade and flexing his creative muscles. So you might be forgiven for thinking that it is a musical curiosity, a museum piece not worth a place in the serious repertoire. If you think that, then you must see this revival of Graham Vick’s 1991 production mounted by the Royal Opera with a wonderful cast of singers and conducted by baroque specialist Christophe Rousset.
Mitridate is the despotic monarch of an eastern empire in conflict with Rome. He has two sons, one of whom has sympathies with his father’s Roman enemies. Waiting at his court is Aspasia, his intended bride, and returning from the war he brings with him Ismene, a Parthian princess destined for his older son, Farnace. Driven by rivalry for the affections of their father’s bride, the sons fall out and Mitridate comes to hate both of them. But as the opera ends, a dying Mitridate is reconciled with his sons and, in a final ensemble, they swear to work together to end the tyranny of Rome.
The opera’s story does not deserve much attention. It is a very conventional moral tale of the conflict between personal desire – for love and power – and the dictates of reason and duty. It does end with a moral lesson and the granting of mercy and forgiveness by the dying monarch but the main purpose of the piece is clearly to allow the singers a series of contrasting opportunities to display virtuoso singing and we get plenty of glimpses of the mature Mozart’s ability to transcend convention and bring beauty and depth to arias that meet the conventional format he had to follow.
In the first performance both the brothers were sung by castrati. In this production we get the superb counter tenor of Bejun Mehta as Farnace and the Georgian soprano, Salome Jicia, singing Sifare. This leads to a lack of balance and Mehta provides a much stronger characterisation of the role of the villain, Farnace. Albina Shagimuratova is a splendid Aspasia, negotiating the difficult music of the Act 1 arias with secure and lovely tone. But it is Lucy Crowe as Ismene who rises to the musical challenges with most distinction. Her singing, especially in the final act aria where she urges Mitridate to win loyalty by mercy not by cruelty, is sublime, with some sustained high notes of liquid beauty. American tenor Michael Spyres is a forceful and virile Mitridate, whose growing anger and bewilderment at the behaviour of his sons is well portrayed. He did not always sound entirely at ease with his highest notes but, these moments apart, he filled the Covent Garden space with fine sound.
The production is very stylised and the sets and costumes are clearly designed to reinforce this impact. There is nothing naturalistic about these characters and the visual impact is indeed tremendous. But the choreographed movement was, on occasion, just too much. A little restraint would have enhanced the impact – less might well be more here.
Despite the blemishes, this is a wonderful evening for anyone who loves Mozart – or indeed loves singing of the highest quality. Christophe Rousset conducts from the harpsichord keyboard with real authority and gets the best out of his singers and his orchestra. Well worth the revival.