Sunday, March 16, 2008

"The insane frenzy of an illicit love": Mitridate, re di Ponto

Mozart's opera Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770), written when he was only 14, is often condescendingly described as an immature or apprentice work--or simply ignored. The opera is barely mentioned in both Daniel Heartz's Mozart's Operas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) and David Cairn's Mozart and His Operas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), for example--you won't even find it listed in the Cairn book's index.

However, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1987 film of the opera makes a strong case for it to be considered among Mozart's masterpieces. Perhaps I'm just responding to the excellence of Ponnelle's film, but on a first hearing I heretically prefer it to his later opera seria Idomeneo (1781), if not La Clemenza di Tito (1791).

The background to the story is the military conflict between Pontus--a kingdom on the Black Sea coast of what is now northeastern Turkey--and an expansionist Rome in the first century BCE. In the foreground, though, like most other opera seria, is a love triangle--or in this case, polyhedron: King Mitridate is betrothed to Aspasia, who loves (and is loved by) his son Sifare. Aspasia is also pursued by Sifare's brother and rival Farnace, who is betrothed to Ismene.

As with all opera seria, the complicated plot (the libretto, by Vittorio Cigna-Santi, is based on a play by Racine) exists to supply characters with conflicts between love and duty, and to give them opportunities to display a range of emotions: anger, despair, triumph, tenderness, grief. Against all expectation the 14-year-old Mozart convincingly (and often stunningly) depicts these emotions in musical terms.

The wide leaps in the vocal lines reveal the virtuosity of his original cast in Milan, for following the standard practice of the time, Mozart wrote their arias only after he had met each of the singers and understood their strengths. This caused a problem, though, because the primo uomo--the castrato Pietro Benedetti, known as Sartorini, who was singing the role of Sifare--arrived less than four weeks before the first performance. Mozart also had to rewrite several arias to satisfy Guglielmo d'Ettore, the demanding tenor singing the role of Mitridate. If all this weren't enough, Mozart and his father Leopold had to combat a faction who wanted the soprano singing Aspasia, Antonia Bernasconi, to instead perform arias composed by Quirino Gasparini. (Gasparini's version of the opera had been performed in Turin four years previously.) We know all this because alternative versions of some of the arias exist, and the process of the mounting of the opera is described in detail in letters sent by Leopold to his wife and daughter at home in Salzburg.

In any case, despite all the delay and intrigue the opera was very successful--it ran for 22 performances--and it's easy to hear why. The arias for Aspasia are particularly effective. As Jane Glover points out in her excellent book Mozart's Women (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), Aspasia is the center of the drama, and in Ponnelle's film she is brilliantly portrayed by Yvonne Kenny. Her opening aria, "Al destin che la minaccia," is electrifying, but as her situation worsens her music gets even more striking. In Act II she has an extended renunciation scene with Sifare (mezzo-soprano Ann Murray), and the act concludes with a thrilling duet between the two. And in the dramatic high point of the last act, Aspasia sings the mournful "Pallid'ombre" as she prepares to drink a cup of poison; the aria exploits the soprano's rich lower register to profoundly moving effect.

Kenny's may be the most arresting performance in the film, but Murray, alto Anne Gjevang as Farnace, and tenor Gosta Winbergh as Mitridate are excellent as well. Winbergh has some particularly jaw-dropping leaps in register which he sings beautifully (and I'm not a big fan of tenors in general). Ponnelle's one miscalculation is to cast the minor role of Arbate with a boy treble instead of an adult (apart from the incongruity--Arbate is supposed to be the governor of Nymphaneum--I just don't like the sound). Nikolaus Harnoncourt's conducting of the superlative period-instrument orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien brings out all the brilliance and fire of the young Mozart's score.

In addition to its musical riches, the film also offers striking visuals, where Ponnelle attempts to reimagine the highly stylized conventions of baroque staging. It's filmed in the elegant 16th-century Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy, the final masterwork of the architect Andreas Palladio and one of the most beautiful theaters in the world. And the outrageous costumes--Aspasia's dress is as wide as Yvonne Kenny is tall, and Winbergh's wild outfit as Mitridate can be glimpsed on the cover above--are based on baroque originals, as can be seen in Charles Joseph Flipart's 1737 portrait of the castrato Carlo Siface. But while the production may be knowingly (and spectacularly) artificial, the emotions conveyed by the performers are powerfully real.

For another appreciation of Ponnelle's film--and particularly of Yvonne Kenny's wonderful performance--see Prima la musica, poi de parole. A dissenting opinion is offered by Ionarts.


  1. Ponnelle's stagings are always excellent IMO, I could watch someone sing listings in the phone book and still enjoy it if he staged it.

  2. Memsaab, I agree. He never did anything that was routine, and he always wanted to serve the music and drama instead of his own ego.

    It was Ponnelle's filmed version of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with Mirella Freni, Hermann Prey, Kiri Te Kanawa and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, seen on PBS when I was 16 and clueless, that planted the seed of my later opera fixation. And his video of Madama Butterfly, with Freni and Placido Domingo, is also excellent.

    He died far too young (he was only 56).

  3. My favorite opera film---I watch it over and over, the music and singing is sublime, and the staging and casting PERFECT---is Ponnelle's La Cenerentola, with Frederica Von Stade and Francisco Araiza. It's pure magic.

    It's interesting--I have been working on a post for my blog comparing opera and Hindi films (I watched some operas last week with my dad). They have so much in common!

  4. Memsaab, you're brilliant to point out parallels between opera and Hindi films. I've also thought about it a bit, and I think that the connections are particularly apparent with Baroque opera: there are similarities in the complex plots involving multiple reversals of fortune, the struggles of the "correct" couple or couples to win out in the end, and the emphasis on forgiveness. I remember wanting to throw a shoe at the screen at the end of Ishq (1997), when characters who have been (in one case literally) tortured by their fathers for three hours turn around in the last five minutes and forgive them--and then I realized that the same thing happens in Baroque opera all the time. Anyway, can't wait to read your post!

    Thanks for the glowing review of Ponnelle's La Cenerentola--I'll look for it tomorrow at my favorite music store.