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.