Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Mitridate, Re di Ponto
Tbilisi State Opera and Ballet, 2014
Davit Kintsurashvili, David Sakvarelidze, Boram Lee, Sébastien Obrecht, Irina Taboridze, Tatia Jibladze, Salome Jicia, Irakli Murjikneli, Nino Chachua
Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 16 October 2014
Despite their relative conventionality and their adherence to the rigid structures and longeurs of the opera seria, there is still much to admire in Mozart's early operas. Midridate, Re di Ponto, composed in 1770 when Wolfgang was only 14 years old, shows much of the composer's ability to develop a strong and beautiful melodic line and a remarkable facility for a musical setting that accentuates and enhances the sentiments of the libretto.
The libretto for Midridate, Re di Ponto isn't so different from so many Baroque opera seria plots, a typically complex mixture of political intrigue and mismatched couples in unrequited love situations. As is also common, this state of affairs has been foolishly instigated by a king or a ruler with the best of intentions, but having misread the signals and advice given to him, it results in feelings of despair, betrayal and revenge. The raw materials don't matter as much however as the ability and skill of the composer in question to set it to music. Even at this early age, within the restrictions of the opera seria format and with such conventional material, the young Mozart's ability to make it come to life can't be faulted.
It's not exactly inspired, but there's a wonderful sense of order and construction to Mozart's music that just gives it an uncommon balance and coherence. The music itself is mostly straightforward, but blessed with Mozart's gift of melody that you'll also find in his elegant and graceful early symphonies. What's different about the compositions here of course is that Mozart is also writing for the voice. Even in the early Mozart operas we can already see prototypes of characters that he would explore later with considerably more depth and humanity. If the characters don't quite come to life in the same way in Midridate, Re di Ponto, they are nonetheless beautifully coloured by the testing range and coloratura that Mozart writes for them.
This makes Midridate, Re di Ponto a good opera for singers and a good testing ground for a competition entrant in the Armel Opera Festival. Being an opera seria, the emphasis is on the voice and individual expression more than in any kind of collaborative dramatic performance. The drama and interaction is all played out in recitative, with the arias and da capo giving expression to individual responses to the tumultuous events. That doesn't mean that there isn't a dramatic quality to the singing, or genuine collaboration between the singers, and you realise that when you hear a Mozart setting of just such a work. They each have a distinct personality, they each reflect various sides and responses to the drama, and bring it together into a satisfying whole.
The quality of Mozart's writing for the voice only comes out however when you have the right kind of voices in the roles. That's a challenge in itself when Midridate has roles written for two soprano castratos and an alto soprano. With female sopranos and a mezzo-soprano playing those as trouser roles, and light, sweet voices in the tenor and soprano roles, you can however match the qualities that Mozart puts into the music, and those qualities enhance the nature of the characters considerably. That's achieved here particularly well by the Tbilisi State Opera company with Sébastien Obrecht as Midridate and Irina Taboridze as Sifare, but it also provides the best possible environment for the lovely voice of Boram Lee to sing the challenging role of Aspasia. As the woman who comes between the king and his two sons, Sifare and Farnace, all of whom are in love with the same woman, it's a critical role to get right.
It's particularly critical that the right voices are behind these characters and able to express the turmoil it gives rise to because otherwise it would be hard to summon up much interest for the standard developments of the opera's plot. The singing here however supports and gives good expression to the qualities that are there within Mozart's wonderful music. It also helps that the score is conducted by Davit Kintsurashvili with attention to the rhythm of the action and played with a delightful brightness, verve and a completely authentic Mozartian buoyancy by the orchestra. Performed like this, the work can be enjoyed on a purely auditory level, or even on a dramatic-auditory level as it satisfyingly hits all the required points and sentiments.
With this kind of interpretation also, you can quite happily put up with the initial confusion and the latter couldn't-care-less-anyway manner of how the plot of Mitridate, Re di Ponto runs through its standard routines. In terms of the staging, there's not much you can do with the rigidity of the opera seria format either, but director David Sakvarelidze keeps the drama moving along with surprising fluidity. The set comes up with nothing more than the familiar generic ruins of antiquity, but good lighting and stage direction prevent the performance from ever feeling repetitive, static or overlong. Cutting the work down to around two hours might also have helped also in this respect. It might be no masterpiece, but this was an utterly delightful account of an underrated and under-performed (aren't they all?) early Mozart.
Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival