Mitridate, re di Ponto at Covent Garden

Bruce Ford (Photo: Clive Barda)
Mozart’s “Mitridate, re di Ponto” — July 9th, Covent Garden.
I can only dimly imagine how this singular and arresting production was first greeted at Covent Garden back in 1991. To this newcomer’s eye it is still both amazingly original in its design and concept, and yet also oddly frustrating. Essentially, director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown and their team created a world, half historic, half fantastic, and one is left with a visual memory replete with starkly simple blood-red sets, kaleidoscopically coloured bizarrely shaped costumes and arrowed shafts of silver light, almost painfully reflecting from armoured breastplates. The time is about 65 BC and the world is one of an old Asia Minor versus a rising Rome, with an ageing King Mitridate fighting off both martial and sexual invasions of his territories. The heavy, stylised, costumes — extravagant to the point of caricature — are in themselves a theatrical tool that both enable and yet also constrain the drama of this young Mozart’s early work. If the singers were disadvantaged physically by what they were wearing, they didn’t seem to show it — although to be fair none had to move at anything more than a dignified pace. It was the supporting actors/dancers, Kabuki-like, who supplied the human activity — including a memorable “a capella” rhythmic foot-stamping war-interlude. All other dramatic extremes — be it fevered love declaration, jealous rage or elegant death — was conducted in an almost balletic minimalism of physical effort.
This suited some singers more than others: it was obvious that Bruce Ford was completely at home in this role that he was reprising here in London. He made a fine and oddly sympathetic tyrant bringing both inner energy and elegant singing to his mainly fairly short arias. It’s generally agreed now that Mozart, only 14 years of age, wrote this opera almost entirely to suit his individual singers — possibly even more so than was usually the case at the time – and his King Mitridate then was an ageing tenor called Signor d’Ettore who pestered the young composer continually through rehearsals with his amendments and adjustments. Consequently, Ford’s arias tend to be high impact but short, with fewer “da capos”, or rather, “dal segnos” compared to his colleagues’. The demanding octave leaps and scales were particularly impressive although I thought I detected a slight straining by the end of Act 3 in his highest register. Perhaps a case of one high C too many that night as it’s a most demanding tessitura for any high tenor.
Contrary to some oft- reported opinion, Mozart didn’t, unlike with d’Ettore, have a particularly hard time dealing with his high-flying castrato singers this time – despite having to deal with the problem of a late-arriving primo uomo. Some things never change.
The king’s two warring sons, Sifare (the “good” guy) and Farnace, (the conniving “baddy” son) were sung here by the British soprano Sally Matthews and the American star countertenor David Daniels, the latter best known for his Handel but singing in, I believe, his first staged Mozart opera and making a rare appearance as a countertenor on the Royal Opera stage. Today’s incumbent at Covent Garden, Mr. Pappano, is not noted for his appreciation of baroque opera, and so those of us who do love it are sadly disenfranchised under his current artistic control and countertenors of Mr. Daniels stature are much missed at this venue.
Both singers were almost unrecognisable under layers of white make-up, bald-caps, long flowing tresses and over-wrought powdered wigs of terrifying dimension. However, compared to other “Mitridate” performances I have heard, here there was a very clear and very distinct vocal difference in both timbre and colour that worked extremely effectively to delineate these two pivotal characters. Matthew’s ringing agile soprano, with a slight and appropriate edge to it, gave Daniels the chance to bring out his warm and mellifluous alto to contrast in a most dramatic paradox. Matthews was consistently excellent throughout, and her Mozart experience certainly showed: her resigned “Lungi da te, mio bene” was a beautifully executed example and deserved its warm reception. Daniels seemed a little less than his normal fluent self in the early scenes (as a normally very agile actor-singer was he subconsciously constrained by the heavy martial costume?) and although always wonderfully musical and correct, his Act 1 “Venga pur, manacci e frema” could have displayed a little more bite I thought. However, he quickly warmed in both voice and persona until, in his final aria of regret and reconciliation with his dying father “Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto” he let Covent Garden hear the full glory of his uniquely beautiful voice, and rightly received the ovation of the night in return.
A singer quite new to me, Aleksandra Kurzak, Polish born but working recently mainly in Germany, most successfully took on the testing role of leading lady, Aspasia, beloved by all three of the Royal house but in very different ways. She has a wonderful easy high top and truly sparkled in her Act 1 and Act 2 arias, although I felt she flagged a little in the final scenes. Her upcoming Queen of the Night at Chicago Lyric will be a much-anticipated event I would imagine. She seemed a natural actress and her dark expressive eyes and mobile face made up for a necessary lack of physical action, imprisoned as she was in huge pannier’d hooped skirts throughout. How the singers coped in the busy backstage area, not to mention in the canteen, is beyond me — talk about “exclusion zones will apply”!
Susan Gritton sang the sadly-wronged but dutifully faithful Ismene with her typical exquisite control and elegance, so obviously at home in the late baroque idiom. She, like Matthews, kept up an admirable consistency in both technique and control and although her arias couldn’t make the same impact as some of the other singers’ she was impeccable and musical throughout. The cast was completed by two promising young singers in the supporting roles of Arbate (Katie van Kooten) and Marzio (Colin Lee). Van Kooten had most to do, and did it well both vocally and dramatically. Lee had less to play with, and had to cope with an almost comic character of a late-arriving Roman general, but he has a clear strong voice and there will be more to come from him I hope in this sort of arena.
Richard Hickox was very much in command of the ROH orchestra who were, if not exactly inspired, certainly workmanlike and effective. Individual horn and oboe solos were neatly and idiomatically played but to be frank, my musical attention was scarcely aroused either way by the orchestra last night.
The almost-full Garden was warm in its final applause and each singer was kindly received, with the volume competition going, by a neck, to the American countertenor. I’ve heard that the ROH is selling remaining tickets at a discount — believe me this is a bargain and one that should be taken up whilst you can.
(c) Sue Loder 2005