Although Mozart was only 14 when he composed Mitridate – and numbers tend to be formally straight-jacketed – his imagination, sense of drama and expressive power already placed him among the best opera composers of his days. The original audiences in Milan did not fail to notice that and the opera was reprised 21 times in its original run, what is noteworthy. I say all this because directors sometimes are overwhelmed by the fact that the composer was so young and cannot see much beyond that. This is definitely the case of David Bösch, who found it important to feature on stage projections of the young composer as a contemporary kid forced by his father to write an opera that would eventually feature a stern father oppressing his children. If Mozart really had had any power to interfere with the choice of subject, this could have made sense – but the truth is that he tried to respond to the situations in the libretto as adeptly as he could (and he certainly could). As he had to work since his early childhood, had traveled around Europe and had the opportunity to meet some of the most notable people in the whole continent, Mozart was far more experienced and open-minded than most adults those days (I avoid the use of the word “mature” because of his notoriously eccentric behavior). Most problematic than that is the director’s choice of portraying all characters (but Mitridate) as teenagers with diaries and toys, what does not go with the opera seria-style music and the intensity of the situations concocted by none other than Jean Racine, who was far from immature when he wrote his tragedy.
All that said, in spite of this misconception hard to overlook, David Bösch did not try to impose any private agenda on the plot, but rather tried to make sense of the complex family relations, building the stage action on sharply defined characters with simple and therefore effective gestures and attitudes. He confessedly avoided the public level of the plot, refurbishing characters like Ismene (and especially Arbate, who is not really much of a character anyway) with very silly motivations. In this sense, Günter Krämer’s Salzburg staging was far more successful (and far more visually striking) in giving characters more “modern” personalities. If Patrick Bannwart’s sets and Falko Herold’s costumes were (probably on purpose) hideous, the staging was nonetheless able to catch the right ebb and flow of dramatic situations and never failed to deliver when a theatrical climax was expected on stage.
Maestro Ivor Bolton was rather respectful in a clean, well-behaved and forward-moving account of the score. The members of the Bavarian State Orchestra played with great polish (even Zoltán Mácsai’s natural French horn solo in Lungi da te was accurate and pleasant in tone), but I wonder if some less extreme fast tempi would not have helped the cast to respond in a similarly polished way. As it was, they had to create the drama a bit by themselves. One might object to Minkowski’s more “theatrical” approach, but it does make a long opera a bit more seductive in live performance. The edition here adopted retained, as far as I could identify, all original numbers, but curiously has the original version of Se viver non degg’io, a pretty and entirely undramatic duet that helped me to understand why Mozart found it better to compose it again. Bolton should have followed his judgment.
When it come to the cast, it made me wonder where are the Arleen Augérs, the Edita Gruberovás, the Lucia Popps, the Teresa Berganzas of our days. Probably ruining their voices singing Wagner and Verdi. It seems that singers who would be singing Monteverdi in the days of Fritz Wunderlich and Gundula Janowitz are now the Fiordiligis and Idomeneos of the world’s leading opera houses. For example, Aspasia is a prima donna role, i.e., for singers who are capable of singing Donna Anna or Konstanzes. In any serious staging of Don Giovanni or Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Patricia Petibon would be Zerlina or Blondchen. It is no wonder that she sounds rather out of her element here. She is all-right a musicianly singer with excellent coloratura, but the voice lacks substance in this repertoire, is often inaudible in its lower reaches and sounds tense in a very un-Mozartian way when she really has to make it “dramatic”. The puffs of air she sang where forceful staccato notes should depict Aspasia’s predicaments in Nel grave tormento show that singing against the grain of one’s voice is never effective – not to mention parlando antics the effect of which was only showing how the voice alone could not produce the dramatic impression that the music cries for. Just check Edda Moser live in Salzburg to hear what it means to flash dramatic acuti without having to distort Mozart phrases. Next to Petibon, Anna Bonitatibus sounded like Mozartian poise and good taste incarnated in the role of Sifare. The Italian mezzo’s sense of line, even in the most breathtakingly fast melisme, is admirable, but, alas, she finds this soprano role on the high side and had to disguise the fact that she was operating very close to her limits by singing her high notes very lightly, even when music and text demanded something very different. Lisette Oropesa, a charming Susanna at the Met, brings a more naturally bright yet round voice to Ismene, but seemed a bit nervous with the fast tempi chosen to her aria and failed to produce the right effect of loveliness. Eri Nakamura too found the role of Arbate uncomfortable, especially in her lower register. Lawrence Zazzo gave scenic tour de force as Farnace, but – again! – he found the part a bit low and couldn’t vocally depict his role’s bad-guy attitude – but I won’t pretend that I don’t REALLY prefer a contralto in this role (how about the amazing Romina Basso?!). In the fearsome role of Mitridate, Barry Banks gave an efficient if hardly impressive performance. It is also true that most tenors are usually less good than that live. The role has very little nuance, but one can always dream to hear it sung with all the niceties of true Mozartian style (as Gösta Winbergh did in Harnoncourt’s studio recording that serves as soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film with the best performance in Ann Murray’s career as Sifare).