The catalog of Mozart opera recordings isn't exactly crowded with versions of his early opera seria Mitridate, re di Ponto. In fact, this new release from conductor Adam Fischer, published on the Dacapo Records label, is only the third studio issue, following previous recordings from Leopold Hager (1977) and Christophe Rousset (1998). A couple of live recordings have appeared over the years, as have at least three DVD issues, making for a small, but elite list of opportunities to enjoy this fascinating piece.
Astonishingly, Mozart composed Mitridate for the opening of the 'Carnival' season in Milan in December 1770 when he was only fourteen years old. Despite its notable success, the opera wasn't revived for two centuries, possibly due to the extreme demands placed on the solo singers. A minimum of six virtuoso vocalists are required for negotiating Mozart's glittering score, three of whom were originally castrati.
As far as I am aware, the Hager recording (originally issued on Deutsche Grammophon LP) offered the score complete, including every last word of recitative. Both Rousset and Fischer have made judicious (and welcome) cuts in the dialogue so that the opera flows by with greater continuity and vitality. All three versions feature top-notch singing, but this new issue takes a somewhat distant third spot behind the others, with Rousset's version retaining the laurel as best all around recording.
One of the defining attributes of the opera seria genre is the nearly unbroken alternation of recitative and aria (generally written in 'da capo' format: ABA' or similar). Since there are only two ensemble numbers in Mitridate (a duet for Aspasia and Sifare in Act 2 and a brief, opera-concluding quintet), the quality of the solo singing is of paramount importance.
The plot of the opera concerns King Mitridate (tenor) and his two sons Sifare (soprano) and Farnace (mezzo-soprano or counter-tenor). With the news that Mitridate has been killed in battle, both of his sons have fallen in love with their father's betrothed, Aspasia (soprano). Mitridate eventually returns, bringing the princess Ismene (soprano) home to wed Farnace, who spurns her due to his love for Aspasia. While Sifare honorably yields Aspasia to his father, Farnace conspires against the latter and is imprisoned. Only at the very end, when Mitridate has been mortally wounded, does he bless the union of Aspasia with Sifare, and Farnace agrees to marry Ismene. Taken from an original drama by Racine, it's quite a silly story, but perfectly in keeping with the contemporary conventions of opera seria, and providing Mozart with ample opportunities for composing a variety of arias: some deeply emotional, almost all rhetorical in nature. Since the plot mostly unfolds in the recitatives, the singers must be highly expressive in dialogue as well as technically adept for the virtuosic arias.
After a crisp and energetic overture, the Danish Radio Sinfonietta moves fluidly through Mozart's colorful score, providing a vivid backdrop in support of the singers. Unfortunately, the recording sets the orchestra rather backward in deference to the vocalists who are consistently forward and somewhat overly 'present'. The slightly unnatural balance occludes some orchestral detail, but overall, the instrumentalists impress with their sure command of the appropriate style and the vigor they display under Adam Fischer's steady hand. As good as they are, however, a comparison with Christophe Rousset and his 'Les Talens Lyriques' shows the Decca recording offering more of everything: vibrancy, color, detail, energy, and so on.
And so it is with the singers as well: with one notable exception, Fischer's singers pale in comparison with Rousset's 'dream team'. As the eponymous King, tenor Mathias Zachariassen offers a heroic voice – sounding Wagnerian on this recording – and very little ability to inhabit his role with any ease or style. His singing is energetic at best, bordering on parody at worst. It's not an assumption I would ever want to hear again, leaving a large void in the center of this recording. As his betrothed, Aspasia, soprano Henriette Bonde-Hansen is over-parted, sounding like she can only barely cope with the extreme coloratura demands of the role. To be sure, she brings great dignity and a lovely tone to her music, but an approximate trill, cloudy passagework, and uninteresting ornaments compromise her assumption. She is at her best in the despairing Act 3 scene 'Ah ben ne fui presaga! Pallid'ombre, che scorgete'.
With an eccentric vocal production, poorly integrated vocal registers, and yards of ungainly – even vulgar – passagework, Maria Fontosh makes a poor Sifare. Lisa Larsson offers a beautiful, silvery soprano as the princess Ismene, and sounds perfectly lovely in her Acts 1 and 3 arias. Only in Act 2 is she partially defeated by the demands of 'So quanto a te dispiace'. Neither Sine Bundgaard as Arbate, nor Anders Dahlin as Marzio offers anything beyond workmanlike effort in their smaller roles. The one exception mentioned above, is the glorious mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström, who easily holds her own with the recorded competition. In fact, among the studio recordings, I would choose her interpretation over the youthful Agnes Baltsa (Hager) and slightly pallid Brian Asawa (Rousset). With affecting nobility in her dark tone, Hammarström sounds suitably androgynous while fluidly negotiating every roulade with precision and flair. All of her contributions are thrilling with the great Act 3 aria 'Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto' standing out as the highlight of the recording.
In summary, I cannot recommend this version over its rivals, though Hammarström is well worth hearing. Hager has a stellar team of soloists, including the towering Arleen Auger and Edita Gruberova, but his conducting is a bit stolid, making heavy weather of the endless recitatives. Rousset has an impeccable line-up of soloists (Dessay, in particular, is in spectacular form) and his conducting is lively, crisp and vivid in detail. With Decca's excellent sound quality, that version is still, by some measure, the top choice among recordings for this interesting opera.