Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mozart's Mitridate, Re Di Ponto

The following was submitted today to Yahoo's Opera Study group (with some modification in the post)

One of the neat things about this group is that, as we follow each month's focus, we get exposed to operas that we might otherwise not see. I know this has been true for me. For each composer, I search through the DVD opera offerings in the Netflix service. Some I like (and sometimes actually purchase), and some I don't. If I don't like a production, I don't feel like I've spent too much money, just time. Either way, I pop the DVD back in the mail, Netflix pops the top DVD off my queue, and it arrives in my mailbox. It turns out that the nearest Netflix mailing facility is in White River Junction (about a 80-90 minute drive away), so DVD's are turned around pretty quickly.

(I don't work for Netflix and receive nothing from them I don't pay for, so I'm carrying on about them because I'm a very satisfied customer. Since the available opera recordings and videos at my library are few in number, Netflix does the trick.)

So this afternoon, I watched Mitridate, Re Di Ponto. This was written when Mozart was 14, during a trip through Italy. According to Charles Osborne, Mozart was given the commission to set the opera by the city of Milan (or some ruler thereof? I need to go back and read that part again). This was in 1769. Apparently the libretto had been set at least once previously, in 1767.

The production I saw was produced by the London Royal Opera House in 1991, as part of a Mozart Bicentennial Celebration (that would make it 200 years after his death, but I guess you get your bicentennials where you can). The DVD shows the parts and players during the opening overture. The sets were pretty simple, a lot of red lighting, with various centerpieces brought up through the stage floor. This included a small torch flush with the floor in the middle of the stage, which appeared as the opera opened. With the flowing cloth of the players, I began to have this morbid fascination about whether one or more of the players would have their costume catch on fire.

While I'm on the subject of costumes...I haven't seen a lot of theater productions of any type, so take the following with a grain of salt...these were the most outlandish, garish, and just plain ugly costumes I have ever seen anywhere. Mitridate and his sons wore shiny chrome armor over flowing tunics and...well, there's no other way to describe them...skirts under which it appeared they were trying to hide bongos, or some sort of drum, on each hip. But the most ridiculous of the bunch were Aspasia's outfits. These were drop bodice dresses, and it looked like, under her skirt, she was trying to hide a full bed mattress. While the other players were able, on occasion, to shed their bongos, poor Aspasia had to drag around that mattress, even kneeling on the floor now and then, and then getting up. It looked painful.

And then there were Mitridates' guards, who first appeared wearing Chinese (?) masks and weilding swords. The masks had a red cloth toungue hanging out of the mask. At the end of Mitridates entrance aria (and it was really, really good, sung by Bruce Ford), each of the half-dozen or so guards pulled on these tongues, and then commenced to pull foot after foot of cloth out of the mouth, as I'm sure we've all seen clowns and magicians do.

All the players had a lot of makeup, with their faces painted white and their lips painted black, as well as various features around the eyes. I'm wondering if this was the practice in Mozart's day.

The opera has a smarmy, slimy villain in Farnace, who has designs on his father's throne, as well as his father's main squeeze. Farnace has also been collaborating with the Romans, who are trying to unseat Mitridates. The king discovers the machinations of his son, and tosses him into the dungeon. Just before being taken into custody, he reveals that the "good" son, Sifari, has also carried on with Aspasia, who has returned the favor. This gets both sons in hot water. However, before Mitridates can execute anyone, the Roman rout his troops and lay seige to the city. Sifari goes to fight by his father's side. But, the Romans win the day, and release Farnace from the dungeon, with a promise he can have the throne and the babe both if he chooses. The Romans leave, and Farnace has this big change of heart, for which he needs a rather lengthy aria to explain.

In the finale, Mitridates, rather than submit to the Romans, has fatally stabbed himself. Before he dies, Farnace and Sifari beg their father's forgiveness, which he grants before dropping dead. Thus ends the opera.

The work takes nearly three hours to complete, and while I enjoyed a few of the arias, I found myself wondering how much longer there was until the end. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I watched it, as it provides an opportunity to compare Mozart's early work with his later work. I felt there were too many parts for castrati, but I guess that was the style of the day. Osborne indicates that Mozart did not write any of the arias until he had met the players, so the arias were written for specific singers. This, too, I've learned through Greenberg was a common practice, at least for Mozart.

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