It was not merely an incoherent production but also some problematic vocal interpretations that fatally affected this latest Classical Opera Company presentation, which has its roots in a large-scale and significant philological project.
This staging of Mitridate, re di Ponto was the first attempt ever to re-create some of the original numbers written by Mozart and later cut from the opera. Unfortunately, these worthy intentions did not find a suitable realization on stage.
The production, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans and designed by Simon Corder, updates the setting to an unspecified contemporary Middle Eastern country at war against generic imperialist 'Westerners' – this latter term replacing the original 'Romani', the Romans, in the surtitles.
The idea behind the production is not misconceived per se: Mitridate, drawing on the homonymous play by Racine, takes as its background the struggles between Ancient Turkey and the imperialist aspirations of Rome. Moreover, the piece's themes touch on the conflict between private wishes and public duty, thirst for power and dysfunctional family relationships. In other words, this incredibly dense opera, composed when Mozart was only 14, offers many possibilities for adaptation and reinterpretation.
Yet all was lost in this production, which suffered from a confusing staging that did not convey the potential of the piece.
As the opera opened, the audience faced a set representing a bunker from which Mitridate's soldiers were controlling the war-torn region. Neon bars, huge screens and laptops monopolized the scene. Video technicians on stage broadcast images of the singers. Unfortunately, these projections often ended up showing indiscriminate pieces of costumes and body parts as the performers walked in front of the on-stage cameras; and when they managed to focus properly, they seemed only to magnify the excessive and disingenuous pathos of the singers' facial expressions. Instead of emphasising emotions or dramatic action, these shots only added to the generally perplexing staging. What aimed to be a reflection on modern technologies and contemporary cultural conflicts came across as an ungraceful and disconnected multimedia choreography.
It is no wonder that none of the singers seemed comfortably to inhabit Corder and Lloyd-Evans' space. Inconsistent costumes prevented them from building the dramatic characterization of their roles. Moreover, a sense of uneasiness in their acting made it hard for them to bring credible protagonists to life.
Contrary to my expectations, Mitridate was the most disappointing role. The story tells us that, on coming back from the battlefield in spite of being thought of as dead, both his sons are in love with his betrothed. However, appearing on stage dressed as an action movie character, Mark Le Brocq inspired hilarity rather than fear, reverence, or a sense of guilt. As for his musical performance, his voice kept dropping to a talking register, and constant problems of pitch affected his singing.
Allison Bell's Aspasia shared most of Le Broqc's problems, including a serious lack of clarity of diction throughout the performance. Her timbre was delicate, but she failed to exploit the dynamics and the virtuosity that her character, so central to the plot, requires. The stunning duet at the end of Act II, 'Se viver non degg'io', memorably re-orchestrated by Stanley Sadie, was delivered with dignity, in spite of (quite a few) problems of intonation. Yet her portrayal of Aspasia was uncharismatic overall.
Countertenor Stephen Wallace, as one of Mitridate's sons, Farnace, sang and played with a monolithic fierceness that seemed extreme. An announcement informed the audience that he was unwell, so praise is due to his motivation to contribute to the performance in such a prominent role under physical duress.
The only singer who seemed to show an adequate level of skill was Kishani Jayasinghe. Despite rarely relying on dynamics, she sustained an efficient control of her voice during the whole performance: from a vocal perspective, her Sifare was the most consistent portrayal.
Sigríður Ósk Kristjánsdóttir, who fell ill before the first night, was replaced by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall, who sang with solemnity, if not with the necessary vigour. On stage, assistant director Rodopi Gaitanou silently joined the rest of the cast to make up for the absence of the unwell singer.
The period orchestra of the Classical Opera Company seemed uncertain at first. It was in the number sang by a repentant Farnace in Act II that some sort of balance was found – if not in the stage work, at least in the music. As he started singing 'Son reo; l'error confesso, e degno del tuo sdegno non chiedo a te pietà' ('I'm guilty; my mistake is confessed, I deserve your disdain and I won't ask for mercy'), piercing strings accompanied his violent outburst, while the entire orchestra joined him in a fiery demonstration of powerful emotion.
In addition, as the performance went on, a certain balance and lively spirit seemed to empower the musicians and overall the orchestral work was positive. I have to admit, though, that the problematic vocal performances and the distracting setting didn't allow for a full enjoyment of the moments when the orchestral interpretation was of a higher standard.
That said, it would be unfair not to stress the philological effort undertaken by the Classical Opera Company, in particular the significant research of Ian Page and the late British musicologist Stanley Sadie. Page and Sadie worked on the sketches of the original version of Mitridate, some of whose numbers were cut or replaced for its premiere in Milan in 1770, probably due to the performers' demands: at that time, singers were not easily pleased and, what is more, Milanese divas and divos felt they couldn't entirely trust a 14-year old foreign composer.
Another difficulty for Page and Sadie was that of including the original restructured numbers without having the opera run for what would be by today's standards an unreasonable time. Page achieved his goal by cutting some of the recitatives and with the rather drastic decision to sacrifice an entire character – the tenor role of Marzio. As Page explains in his insightful programme notes, Marzio 'is in alliance with Farnace' but 'does little to advance the plot': he could be sacrificed for the sake of making the opera enjoyable for contemporary audiences.
Something went wrong here, though. In this premiere at Sadler's Wells, such a large-scale and praiseworthy experiment was sadly not matched by the stage and vocal incarnation it deserved.
Photo: Classical Opera Company Artistic Director Ian Page
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