Cher Public

Teen spirit

Not everything a genius creates is … a work of genius. Y’know? Mozart, for example: Sure, he was a prodigy at four, and at ten, and even at fourteen, but did he actually compose anything spectacular before he turned, say, seventeen? I’m thinking of “Exultate, Jubilate,” if you want to know. 

He was only fourteen when he got his first crack at an opera seria: Mitridate, Re di Ponto, and it shows: He had the method down, and the proper style of setting text for maximum grandiosity and variation of orchestral effect, and the traditional da capo form was already expanding in his hands to two contrasting melodies, a style full of interest that would evolve, in the next century, into the aria-and-cabaletta of bel canto.

Too, Mozart already knew (had known for years) how to work with singers to devise melodic lines flattering to their individual talents. Idomeneo has often been called the greatest opera seria ever written, but Idomeneo was ten years (and three other such texts) in the boy’s future. It is fascinating, though, to hear how able he already was at bringing out the rather formal personalities of the characters and the drama, varying orchestration and mood, and it was a treat to see the thing staged in an imaginative and well-paced production by the Little Opera Theatre of New York.

The singers were a talented lot. Some were up to the challenges Mozart created for the gifts of his particular cast; others fell a bit short. His breakdown had included three castrati; as is generally the custom nowadays, Farnace (elder son and villain) and Arbate (bumbling faithful retainer) were given to countertenors; Sifare (younger son and romantic lead) to a mezzo in trousers. At Little Theatre, the acting of all hands was considerably more naturalistic (Sifare gliding his lips along Aspasia’s neck and bare shoulder, for example) than Mozart or anyone else in 1770 ever beheld on the opera stage. But we like our dysfunctional family intrigues hands-on nowadays.

The story, taken from a Racine tragedy, concerns one of Ancient Rome’s most formidable enemies, Mithridates VI, king of Pontus (today, the northern coast of Turkey). This worthy allied himself with—or imposed his power upon—much of the Greek Aegean for half a century, drinking poisons now and then to fortify his system against assassination. As the opera begins, rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated and his two sons, Farnace and Sifare, vie for power and also for the hand of their father’s fiancée, the lovely Aspasia. She inclines to Sifare, infuriating wicked Farnace, who jilts his girlfriend, Ismene, a Parthian princess (don’t ask), and connives with the Romans for revenge.

At the climax of Act I, Arbate, faithful family retainer, rushes in with the news that Mitridate is, in fact, alive, and has just hit town. Doesn’t this sound theatrical? (It reminds me of the dysfunctional family in Long Day’s Journey into Night.) The king trusts no one and tests everyone and threatens death to each in turn, but at last, assaulted by Rome, kills himself, nobly entrusting Aspasia (who has attempted to strangle herself with her tiara) to Sifare, while Farnace redeems himself, sort of, by stabbing his Roman pals in the back.

Of the singers on the present occasion (which marks Mitridate’s New York stage debut—a concert in 1991 its only previous appearance here), three were especially fine. Nicholas Tamagna, a tall, slim countertenor with a heavyweight voice up to an easy, ringing high A, made an effectively seething, sneering and, later, enchained Farnace. Black leather jeans and a sleeveless black vest clued us to his wicked character; he scowled and prowled a lot, too. He sang all evening with seamless power and beauty with some especially fine passagework.

Serena Benedetti sang his brother Sifare with a supple, attractive mezzo, ardent delivery and the only genuine trill among the cast. (In Mozart’s day, no one without a trill dared appear on a stage as grand as Milan’s Teatro Regio Ducale. In 2011, they demonstrate four or five different ways to fake one.) Sifare and Aspasia have the only duet in the opera, and the original Sifare had such confidence in the young composer that he swore to have himself castrated again if it was not a hit. It was. It still is.

Ismene, in opera seria convention, is the name generally given to the expendable extra princess or confidante who sings when everyone else is preoccupied, imprisoned, going for coffee. At the Little Theatre, she was Cláudia Azevedo, who produced the sweetest, most lovable sounds of the night, especially during her pleas to Mitridate for mercy on his sons. Her voice is full and womanly, and she knows how to fill it with tender emotion. She may not be a coloratura but she could be a real find for the lyric repertory.

Burly Andrew Drost, as Mitridate, had the unenviable task of singing the music Mozart designed for a reigning tenor, Guglielmo d’Ettore, a man so proud of displaying his two-octave range that his opening aria had to be rewritten five times. The requirements of the title figure, more even than the unfashionable state of opera seria, probably accounts for the Mitridate’s rarity: Who can sing it, and dominate the stage with it? Drost achieved those two full octaves only by jumping about unpersuasively from a dry, unattractive top through a solid middle register to a few baritonal notes indicative of the tyrant’s evil temper.

Erica Miller, the Aspasia, has a pleasant soprano but shrill, unwinning high notes. Happily, most of her role lay in a more comfortable range. Eric S. Brenner, the Arbate, sang some ravishing phrases on those occasions when he was in tune. Gruff Blake Friedman as Marzio convinced us not merely that he was a true Roman, not one of these damned artistic Greek types, but that conquest, not music, was his primary concern.

Richard Cordova drew an impressive, often thrilling sound from his well-rehearsed orchestra of nine. Mozart had fifty-three players in Milan, and no doubt the lack of flutes, trumpets, bassoons and drums in New York accounted for a certain sameness of effect during the long evening, but the Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Auditorium is small enough, and live enough, that even two violins (in parts composed for two groups of fourteen) made plenty of harmonious noise without ever competing with the singers.

The staging by Philip Shneidman, with splendid video projections by Alex Koch, was simple and persuasive, based largely on projected graphics (maps, art, wallpaper) into which lines of the libretto were seamlessly entwined. If the typist had not, distractingly, spelled “Aspasia” in several inaccurate ways, this would have been a triumph of stagecraft with minimal gimmickry. The rambunctious fight scenes, however, could with profit have been toned down a few notches during Tamagno’s last aria, to which we would fain have paid closer attention.

Nicholas Tamagna as Faranace and Andrew Drost as Mitridate; Serena Benedetti as and Erica Miller as Aspasia. Photos: Tina Buckman.

  • brooklynpunk

    Very nicely written review… makes me very sorry I missed this run…!

  • Nerva Nelli

    I think MITRIDATE is one of the more worthwhile ogf teh eraly stage works, maybe the most worthwhile- certainly streets ahead of LUCIO SILLA (zzzzzz).

    I think Aspasia is a creation worthy of the more mature Mozart; I once heard a fantastic performance directed by Ponelle in the Teatro Olimpico with (Commonwealth singer) Yvonne Kenny fabulous as Aspasia and Lella Cuberli equally fabulous as Sifare.

    • richard

  • armerjacquino

    I think if you cherry-pick the teenage Mozart you can come away with some wonderful stuff- the Mitridate duet, Lungi da Te (both versions), Il tenero momento, Ah se il crudel periglio, etc. What’s missing- understandably- is the dramatic insight he brought to his later works (especially the madly underrated Clemenza).

    There’s a Cossotto ‘Tenero momento’ on YouTube which brought to mind the wonderful jokes from kruno and mrsjc about the 40s RAI recordings of opera seria.

    • Nerva Nelli

      I agree with Armer- for once wholeheartedly.

      There’s an insanely beautiful s/t duet from “Apollo et Hyacinthus”, done to perfection by Zylis-Gara and Theo Altmeyer on an HRE set…

      • Nerva Nelli

        And here are Auger and ARJ in this “garbage” by the 11 year old Mozart:

        • brooklynpunk

          This is BEAUTIFUL, Nerva.. THANKS…! (..and, I am loathe to admit it, but Mozart ain’t a major fav for me..but this is real nice..!--and nice to see that young Wolfie had a hobby to keep him off the streets…lol)

  • papopera

    There are people around who are ready to perform any garbage composed by young Wolfgang Amadeus.

    • brooklynpunk


      • Indiana Loiterer III

        Well, it’s hardly on a level with L’Oracolo or Adriana Lecouvreur, isn’t it?

  • bash23

    The Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is bringing out a new production of this early Mozart work at their summer festival in July with Barry Banks and Patricia Petibon, conducted by Ivor Bolton and… I can’t wait to see this opera I have never seen so far…

  • Gualtier M

    I saw this production on opening night with this cast and felt that Mr. Yohalem was too kind with Drost’s Mitridate and Blake Friedman’s Marzio. Neither are exactly beginners and displayed big vocal problems. I agree though that Tamagna (who was done up for leather night at the Eagle) and Azevedo were the standouts. Serena Benedetti is identified as a soprano btw -- Sifare has been sung by Barbara Frittoli and Arleen Auger among others. The reduced orchestration was very deftly done and you missed little.

    I own two recordings of “Mitridate” and pulled them out for comparison. The first is the Hager recorded in the 1970’s on the Philips complete Mozart collection. That has Auger as Aspasia, young Edita Gruberova as Sifare, Baltsa as Farnace, Werner Hollweg as Mitridate and Cotrubas as Ismene, Christine Weidinger as Arbate with David Kuebler as Marzio. That is a musically good performance with a low dramatic temperature.

    Then there is the 1990’s Rousset on Decca with Bartoli as Sifare, Brian Asawa as Farnace, Dessay as Aspasia, Sandrine Piau as Ismene, Giuseppe Sabbatini as Mitridate and a very young Juan Diego Florez as Marzio.

    Rousset has more dramatic pointing and a period orchestra which plays with more bite. Cecilia Bartoli is really fine as Sifare -- her native Italian and dark tone add all kinds of drama to the role and she sings quite well without the chugging coloratura or breathy tone mannerisms. Gruberova sounds very fresh and young with a rounder timbre -- the role was lower than the Zerbinettas and Konigin die Nachts she was singing at the time. The middle is quite fruity and warm. But she is very feminine and Viennese in the role. Arleen Auger is the more regal Aspasia -- Dessay in good youthful voice is very vulnerable with life and death emotional struggles to contend with. Both Arbates are sung by lyric sopranos who sound very feminine and lack authority. Baltsa is actually a ballsier more dangerous Farnace than Asawa. Baltsa is in her absolute prime singing with very smooth tone and equalized registers -- none of the snarling and chewing out chest like she did later. But Asawa sounds pretty toned and ineffectual whereas Baltsa has thrust and fire. Baltsa sounds like she belongs on the Rousset set since she is more in line with that cast. Hollweg is basically a Bach tenor with a limited top -- he is committed and musical but when the going gets tough he struggles and turns whiny. Sabbatini is another native Italian who puts over the long recitatives with passion and though lacking a really gorgeous tone has more brightness and ring than Hollweg. Florez is a showstopping Marzio in his one aria with all the runs. Cotrubas is also caught in her peak years with really heart-tuggingly beautiful tone and sensitivity but Piau is also very good and has some of the dignity and command the role needs. Both ladies excel. I would say the Decca Rousset set (for which Emanuelle Haim is the backup harpsichord player) is the clear choice but I am glad to have the Hager for some of the singers -- Baltsa and Cotrubas.

    There are live recordings out there with Pilar Lorengar as Ismene and Brigitte Fassbaender as Farnace. Also Podles has sung Farnace and Damrau has sung Aspasia. Would love to hear them in this opera.

    • Nerva Nelli

      “Brigitte Fassbaender as Farnace”

      • Gualtier M

        Speaking of:

        When I last saw “Mitridate, Re di Ponto” back in concert form at Tully Hall with the Mostly Mozart in 1992, the bicentennial year of Wolfgang’s death the Farnace was the great Tatiana Troyanos. Ms. Troyanos made Mr. Tamagna’s get up look demure in comparison. I remember a deep purple pantsuit and wild hairstyle that made her look like a cross between pre-heiroglyph “Purple Rain” Prince and Cruella DeVille. Her singing was equally extravagant and wild but she was one year away from her early demise, so I will be tactful and silent. The reviewer in the Times said words to the effect: “The good news is that Tatiana Troyanos sang Farnace in a manner totally her own, the better news is that no one will ever sing the role in that way again…”

        • armerjacquino

          I saw a concert performance of Mitridate at the Barbican in about 1990, but all I can remember about it was that Jochen Kowalski was in it. I remember the Marzio was a young tenor who sounded very promising and I think it might have been Barry Banks.

          No idea who the Mitridate or the donne were, or who conducted, which worries me slightly.

          • manou

            I saw this at Covent Garden


            which was a very clever production.

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            I saw it at Covent Garden with Bruce Ford, Susan Gritton, Katie Van Kooten, Colin Lee and some other people (supposed to include David Daniels, but didn’t, in the end). I remember thinking long stretches of the music were amazing and sublime but obviously it doesn’t hang together in the way later works do, as AJ pointed out right at the beginning of the thread. I can’t remember who the Sifare was, but I do remember either really liking her, or thinking that Sifare seemed to have the most beautiful music to sing.

  • Gualtier --

    Did you really think the review was too kind to Mr. Drost? “Drost achieved those two full octaves only by jumping about unpersuasively from a dry, unattractive top through a solid middle register to a few baritonal notes indicative of the tyrant’s evil temper” is too kind, by you?


  • Tamerlano

    It’s hard to beat Bruce Ford in the opening aria…the final phrases are gloriously well sung.

  • Tamerlano

    Or, Yvonne Kenny in “nel grave tormento”.

  • Tamerlano

  • I also saw this production. Nicholas Tamagna is a friend of mine, and we sang Fledermaus together in December ( he was a brilliant Orlovski).

    The other countertenor was barely adequate. And both tenors were pretty horrible. The Mitridate went splat every time he went for a high note, and Blake Friedman looked like a scally boy out of bad English porn and sounded like a high school student. On the night I was there, there were scattered titters when he was singing his big aria because he simply was out of his league.