WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Mitridate, rè di Ponto, K. 87 (74a)—Barry Banks (Mitridate), Miah Persson (Aspasia), Sophie Bevan (Sifare), Lawrence Zazzo (Farnace), Klara Ek (Ismene), Robert Murray (Marzio), Anna Devin (Arbate); The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London, England, UK, 12 – 26 July 2013; Signum Classics SIGCD400; 4 CD, 224:18; Available from Signum Records, Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
At a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients in April 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’ From a musical perspective, similar sentiments might have been inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at the age of fourteen spent the summer of 1770 in Bologna composing an opera seria for Milan’s Carnevale. Like Jefferson, whose genius was shaped by scores of thinkers of his own time and prior centuries, Mozart was not figuratively dining alone, however. He had before him the example of his father Leopold, now remembered for being the father of a famous son and the author of an important treatise on the art of violin playing but also an accomplished, likely undervalued composer in his own right and, at any rate, a natural source of knowledge for the younger Mozart. Also a frequent guest both in Mozart’s presence in 1770 and in his later correspondence was Prague-born composer Josef Mysliveček, whose opera La Nitteti had been premièred in Bologna a month prior to his introduction to Mozart. There is no doubt that Mozart was acquainted with Mysliveček’s music in general and the score of La Nitteti in particular, and it is likely from his Bohemian colleague that the teenaged Austrian learned many of the rudiments of writing for the operatic stage. Nonetheless, a vital component of Mozart’s genius was his ability to absorb the influences of his contemporaries and synthesize them into unique manifestations of his own creativity. In that regard, if Mitridate, rè di Ponto is a beginner’s work, the beginner could have been no one but Mozart.
When Mitridate premièred at Milan’s Teatro Regio Ducale, the city’s principal opera house until its destruction by fire in 1776 prompted the construction of the more familiar Teatro alla Scala, on 26 December 1770, the teenaged Mozart was exposed to—or, it might be said, victimized by—the machinations of an influential opera house and a cast of acclaimed singers who expected to retain the right until and beyond the première of a new opera to demand alterations, additions, and excisions to their music. The rôles of Farnace, Sifare, and Arbate were created by castrati, the most renowned of whom was Sartorino, who took the soprano rôle of Sifare, and the first Mitridate was Guglielmo d’Ettore, a Sicilian tenor admired by Padre Martini whose life was destined to be shorter than Mozart’s. Immersed in the stilo galante by prior engagements in Jommelli’s 1757 Temistocle, at the time of the first performance of which he was likely only seventeen years old, and Hasse’s L’Achille in Sirio, in which he originated the part of Nearco in 1759, d’Ettore brought to Mozart’s Mitridate close acquaintance with Quirino Gasparini’s 1767 setting of the same libretto, in which he created the title rôle; a familiarity that, at least in the singer’s dealings with the young Mozart, certainly bred contempt. It is known that the tenor’s obstreperous demands compelled Mozart to rewrite Mitridate’s aria di sortita, ‘Se di lauri il crine adorato,’ no fewer than five times before d’Ettore was satisfied, and he insisted on singing Gasparini’s setting of ‘Vado incontro al fato estremo’ despite Mozart’s valiant efforts to tailor his own setting to downplaying d’Ettore’s vocal shortcomings. [Four of Mozart’s sketches of ‘Se di lauri il crine adorato’ survive, the most complete of which is included on this recording’s fourth disc, along with the authentic ‘Vado incontro al fato estremo’ and alternate versions of six other numbers Mozart was forced by singers’ caprices to substantially alter or cut, all of them expertly sung by Signum’s cast.] It is suggested that agents of Gasparini conspired to convince Milan’s Aspasia, the celebrated soprano Antonia Bernasconi, to also substitute the Italian composer’s settings of her arias for Mozart’s in the première, but she seemingly was a more insightful artist than her leading man. Mitridate being his first opera seria, it may have also been Mozart’s initiation into the dominion of operatic castrati. [The alto and soprano rôles in Mozart’s 1767 Apollo et Hyacinthus, premièred at Universität Salzburg, were sung by physiologically unaltered students.] It is interesting to note that, despite similarities in the vocal distributions, there were no ‘returns’ by members of the first cast of Mitridate in the 1771 and 1772 premières of Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba and Lucio Silla, which also took place in the Teatro Regio Ducale. This sort of operatic personnel turnover was not uncommon in the Eighteenth Century, but it can hardly be doubted that the experiences of composing and staging Mitridate made impressions on Mozart that remained with him until the ink on his scores for La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte dried.
The principal goal of Classical Opera is to give the operas of Mozart and his contemporaries stylish, period-appropriate handling equal to the highest standards applied during the past several decades to the works of Baroque composers such as Händel and Vivaldi. The group’s recording of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes set the bar for future endeavors very high, and this performance of Mitridate succeeds not only in raising that bar further but also in surpassing the levels of achievement of almost every prior recording of any of Mozart’s early operas. Under the direction of Classical Opera’s founder, Ian Page, the orchestral musicians, energetically led by Matthew Truscott, play superbly, the finesse of their articulation complementing the unfaltering rhythmic mettle of Maestro Page’s conducting. A surprising degree of variety is achieved by the continuo players, cellist Andrew Skidmore, double bassist Cecelia Bruggemeyer, and harpsichordist Steven Devine, and they adapt their phrasing and management of cadences in secco recitatives to support the singers without losing sight of the importance of the continuo in driving the dramatic progress of the opera. Tuned to A = 430 Hz, which is likely a viable approximation of typical pitch in Milan (where, in the generation after the opening of La Scala, tuning rose as high as A = 451 Hz) in 1770, the Classical Opera musicians avoid the strident noises made by many ensembles in pursuit of historically-informed performances of Mozart’s operas. In this performance, when the orchestral playing jars it is because the score dictates that the dramatic situations require it. At fourteen, Mozart was already an inventive orchestrator: learning from his father, Mysliveček, and other sources, his part-writing in Mitridate exhibits sophistication superior to all but his most gifted contemporaries. Mitridate is clearly a distant relative of Idomeneo, and Aspasia is a meticulously-ornamented sister of Donna Anna and Fiordiligi. What sets the endeavors of Classical Opera and Maestro Page apart from those of similarly-purposed ensembles is that they perform Mitridate not as though it were late Händel or early Beethoven or as a piece of juvenilia that inspires curiosity rather than true interest. Earlier recordings of Mitridate have featured extraordinary casts, but Maestro Page’s adroit leadership ensures that the forces heard on this recording both place Mitridate within its appropriate stylistic context and perform it with an intensity that make any concerns other than the phenomenal quality of the music-making secondary at best.
Though her character has only one aria, soprano Anna Devin makes her mark on the performance with her portrayal of a wily Arbate, the Governor of Nymphæa. Taking advantage of every line of recitative to create a three-dimensional figure, Ms. Devin sails through Arbate’s aria in Act One, ‘L'odio nel cor frenate,’ with good diction and technical control. Still more impressive is her delivery of Arbate’s crucial recitative in Act Two, ‘Alla tua fede il padre, Sifare, applaude.’ The scheming Roman tribune Marzio was also given only one aria, but it is the daunting ‘Se di regnar sei vago.’ Like Ms. Devin, tenor Robert Murray makes much of his recitatives, striding through his scenes with machismo. Though his executions of the divisions in the aria are not without stress, he manages the range capably, his upper register ringing and reliable. Marzio was sung on the DECCA recording of Mitridate with Les Talens Lyriques by the young Juan Diego Flórez: it is indicative of the technical aplomb of his singing that Mr. Murray has nothing to fear in comparison.
As Ismene, the daughter of the King of Parthia, soprano Klara Ek sings beguilingly, the character’s love for the duplicitous Farnace inspiring Mozart to give her some of the opera’s most purely lovely music and prompting Ms. Ek to sing it rousingly. Arbate, Farnace, and Sifare having been devised for castrati, Ismene was in Mozart’s conception the opera’s seconda donna, and the quality of her music reflects this distinction. In Act One, Ms. Ek sings the aria ‘In faccia al'oggetto’ with rounded, firmly-focused tones, and Ismene’s aria in Act Two, ‘So quanto a te dispiace,’ receives from the singer a performance of dramatic and musical expertise. The aria in Act Three, ‘Tu sai per chi m'accesse,’ is the best of Ismene’s three arias, and Ms. Ek’s account of it could hardly be more stylish or beautiful of tone. The animation that she brings to recitatives enlivens her development of the character, and she embodies an Ismene who does not sit idly by and await the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: she takes up the bow and fires a few darts of her own.
The precedent of assigning the rôle of Mitridate’s elder, lower-voiced son to a countertenor is honored in this recording by the casting of American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo. Possessing a plush voice that has nearly the sound of a female contralto, Mr. Zazzo is a Farnace to whom resignation comes more easily than rage. The voice is unfailingly responsive to music and text, but the singer lacks sufficient agility for some of his music. Nothing is simplified, thankfully, but there are occasionally passages in which the effort is more noticeable than the effect. The innovative chromaticism in the B section of Farnace’s Act One aria, ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema,’ is discernible in Mr. Zazzo’s performance, and though the coloratura is imperfect the overall delivery of the number is uninhibited. The Act Two aria ‘Va, l'error mio palesa,’ sung in response to the good-hearted Ismene’s longing for a sign that her love is requited, discloses what a nasty piece of work Farnace truly is, and Mr. Zazzo seems to relish the opportunity to flex his antagonistic muscles without overdoing the schoolboy villain histrionics. Farnace corners the market on betrayal and self-serving opportunism in ‘Son reo; l'error confesso,’ in which his contrition rapidly evolves into denunciation of his brother Sifare. Here, too, the coloratura is the least impressive component of Mr. Zazzo’s singing, but his delineations of the character’s almost schizophrenic shifts in attitude are telling. In Act Three, Farnace’s full confession and quest for atonement are finally realized in his frantic accompagnato ‘Vadasi...Oh ciel’ and aria ‘Già daglia occhi il velo è tolto.’ In his most beautiful music in the opera, Farnace admits his wrongdoing to his dying father: what among people whose lives are not lived in secco recitative might be too little, too late is in opera the right sentiment at the right time. The poise and projection of Mr. Zazzo’s voice remain impressive, and in this performance he is an oily, strangely seductive Farnace who lacks only the utmost edge of bravura brilliance.
As sung by soprano Sophie Bevan, there is no doubt that Sifare, Mitridate's younger son, is the more honorable of the two brothers or that Mozart’s imagination was most challenged by Sifare’s plight. Ms. Bevan’s sharply-focused singing of her entrance aria in Act One, ‘Soffre il mio cor con pace,’ immediately announces the presence of an innate Mozartean, and the concentrated emotion that she brings to the wonderful ‘Parto: Nel gran cimento,’ never distracting from her consummate musicality, is wrenching. Sifare’s breathless desperation in the accompagnato with Aspasia, ‘Non più, Regina,’ is expressed without distortion of the vocal line. Gavin Edwards’s awe-inspiring horn obbligato in ‘Lungi da te, mio bene’ would steal the show in any performance but Ms. Bevan’s, her unflustered voicing of the dramatic two-octave ascent (and its repeat in the recapitulation) matching the vibrancy of Mr. Edwards’s playing. The duet with Aspasia that ends Act Two, ‘Se viver non degg'io,’ should be the climax of any performance of Mitridate, and the wealth of imagination that Ms. Bevan devotes to it is rivaled only by the luminosity of her singing. These qualities also shape her singing of the aria in Act Three, ‘Se il rigor d'ingrata sorte.’ Ms. Bevan’s technique encounters no challenges it is not capable of conquering, and only a few instances of forcing at the very top of the range reveal the effort that this satin-voiced singer expends in this superb performance.
It is Aspasia’s unfortunate lot to be betrothed to Mitridate, in love with one of his sons, and loved by Mitridate and both of his sons. In the hands of many composers, this combination of circumstances would lead to stereotypical operatic mayhem, but at fourteen Mozart possessed sufficient sophistication to dedicate his attention to exploring the emotions of these figures rather than their amorous entanglements; or perhaps he had thus far in his life been spared the pangs of unrequited or impossible love. If the colorful portraits of people falling in and out of love in Mitridate are solely responses to the text, however, Mozart was far more sensitive to the nuances of words than many poets. So, too, is soprano Miah Persson, whose Aspasia is a tormented but never vanquished soul with uncompromising musical values. There are passages in Aspasia’s very difficult music that take Ms. Persson to the edge of her technical abilities, but every passing suggestion of strain is allied with unaffected expressivity. Artifice is not part of this Aspasia’s character: in Ms. Persson’s portrayal, she speaks only from her heart. The punishing intervals and breakneck coloratura in ‘Al destin, che la minaccia’ are sung authoritatively, and the impact of Mozart’s clever word painting in ‘Nel sen mi palpita’ is heightened by the sincerity of the singer’s delivery. In Act Two, the accompagnato ‘Grazie ai Numi partì’ and aria ‘Nel grave tormento’ receive from Ms. Persson outpourings of knife’s-edge expressivity, the formidable coloratura in the aria’s Allegro sections ignited like a trail of gunpowder. The sensuality with which Ms. Persson and Ms. Bevan combine their voices in ‘Se viver non degg'io’ is enthralling: the duet is a remarkable explosion of Mozart’s gifts for giving musical life to the most visceral human emotions, but in this performance it is also a painfully intimate look at the private anguish of lovers in extremis. In Aspasia’s most powerful scene, the accompagnato ‘Ah ben ne fui presaga,’ cavatina ‘Pallid' ombre, che scorgete,’ and accompagnato ‘Bevasi...ahimè’ in Act Three, Ms. Persson assumes the guise of a tragic actress discerning in the drama before her a first glimmer of hope. Ms. Persson pushes her silvery, lyric instrument hard in Aspasia’s most arduous bravura passages and at the top of the range, where she is often asked to vie with Mitridate in flirting with top C, but she emerges as the victor in every battle into which the music leads her. She, Aspasia, and Mozart all triumph.
Barry Banks recently remarked that, prior to taking on the rôle of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell for Welsh National Opera, an assumption for which he has rightly been rewarded with accolades, Mozart’s Mitridate was the most difficult part in his repertoire. It is documented in contemporary correspondence, as well as in Mozart’s own later exchanges with his father, that Guglielmo d'Ettore was in reduced vocal estate at the time of the first performance of Mitridate and may already have been ill with the malady that would end his life less than two years later. If Mozart’s music for Mitridate is representative of his avoidance of the worn or compromised patches in d'Ettore’s voice, what a voice it must have been! In the introductory cavata in Act One over which the tenor gave Mozart such trouble, ‘Se di lauri il crine adorno,’ the vocal line defiantly rises to top C, and Mr. Banks makes easy going of both the huge intervals and the high tessitura. Later in Act One, the test in Mitridate’s aria ‘Quel ribelle e quell'ingrato’ is a terrifying descent from top A to low C♯, and Mr. Banks again passes with élan to spare. His first aria in Act Two, ‘Tu che fedel mi sei,’ is also shaped by difficult intervals and spiky vocal lines cresting on top C. Mr. Banks sings this as though it were the most natural means of communicating life-or-death emotions. Mozart’s unusual use of an augmented second to modulate the repetition of the development downward by a whole tone in the aria ‘Già di pietà mi spoglio’ is evidence of the faculty with which the young composer absorbed the compositional techniques to which he was exposed, similar manipulations of harmony and key progression having been employed to reflect deepening emotions in Mysliveček’s pre-1770 operas. His singing of the aria is evidence of Mr. Banks’s unwavering connection with Mozart’s style. The Act Three aria ‘Vado incontro al fato estremo’ again launches Mr. Banks to top C repeatedly, and he hits the mark accurately and thrillingly on each ascent. Mitridate’s tessitura stops just short of that of Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire’ and ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ in Act Four of Guillaume Tell, but Mozart’s coloratura is at least as taxing as Rossini’s. Mitridate would have been an ideal rôle for the first Arnold, Adolphe Nourrit, but whether he or Guglielmo d’Ettore could have equaled the red-blooded, vocally dazzling performance given by Mr. Banks on this recording is doubtful.
There are essentially two types of geniuses: those who are born and those who are created. As in so many aspects of his life and artistry, Mozart was in the scope of his creativity sui generis. He was a born genius, but careful study of the music of both his contemporaries and his artistic ancestors enabled him to become an even greater one. Mitridate, rè di Ponto is only the beginning of the journey that led to the da Ponte operas and his final opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, but the cosmopolitan sensibilities that Mozart possessed at fourteen were superior to those of many composers in their maturities. The listener fortunate enough to encounter Mitridate in the theatre will likely be compelled to accept either historically-informed performance practices of dubious applicability to early Mozart or unapologetic modern-instrument precepts that approach the score from the perspective of the Nineteenth Century. Classical Opera’s recording restores Mitridate to the way it must have sounded in the Teatro Regio Ducale in 1770—except that even the cast of luminaries by whom the opera was premièred cannot have surpassed the performance offered by the voices heard on these discs.