Sweden Mozart Mitridate, Ré di Ponto (concert performance): Soloists, Rebaroque, Maria Lindal (leader) at the RoyalCastle, Stockholm, 8.2.2014 (premiere) (GF)
Mitridate, King of Ponto – Mats Carlsson, tenor
Sifare, his youngest son – Paulina Pfeiffer, soprano
Aspasia, Mitridate’s betrothed – Anna Eklund-Tarantino, soprano
Farnace, Mitridate’s oldest son, collaborator with the enemy – Paula Hoffman, mezzo-soprano
Ismene, Farnace’s betrothed – Daniel Carlsson, counter-tenor
Compére – Robert Fux
Arrangements: Jonas Dominique0
Costumes: Nils Harning
Make-up & Wigs: Johan Lundström
The header says “concert performance” which is only a half-truth, since the whole ensemble were in period costumes, wore wigs, made entrances and exits in accordance with the stage directions and also acted with appropriate gestures and facial expressions. In other words “semi-staged” would have been a more suitable label.
The 14-year-old Mozart composed Mitridate, Ré di Ponto while in Italy 1770 and it was performed in Milan (premiere on 26 December 1770) during the carnival no less than 21 times, which indicates that it was a success. After that however it had a two-century-long torpor before it was seen again. It is still a rarity in the operatic world and can in no way be compared to his mature operas but it is still remarkable that a boy just turned teenager was able to create such a well-crafted work. No doubt he was influenced by other contemporaneous composers, not least, it seems, Josef Myslivecek, whom he met frequently during his Italian period. But Mozart is no plain imitator, no ‘parrot’, and the music is well adjusted to the dramatic situations. Had he lived longer and for some reason been able to come back to this work and revise it, he would certainly have compressed it, both in total length and within individual numbers. Since he never got that chance he would have been very satisfied with the decision to present it at the Royal Castle in this abridged form. Not only did they remove two minor characters, Arbate and Marzio, and several of the arias – concentrating on the plums in the cake – but they also cut all the secco recitatives and instead introduced the superb Robert Fux as mediator. He was marvellous at sorting out the knotty story and summarize the contents of the arias but he also gave some historical glimpses of 18th century performance practice and touched upon the Italian practice of having castrato singers in the leading male roles. Today these roles are often sung by women in male costumes – as in this production – but to complicate matters further the girl Ismene was sung by a counter-tenor in women’s clothes and Robert Fux was a marvellously beautiful female compere in crinoline, with sonorous baritone voice.
This was the first ever production of Mitridate in Sweden, and the mastermind behind the project, Anna Eklund-Tarantino, said to me after the performance that this was a twenty-year-old dream finally come true. The way to fulfilment wasn’t as straight as an arrow, though. In September last year, when the scheduled premiere was to take place, the whole thing was called off only a couple of days before kick-off when President Obama was invited to dine with the Royal Family at the castle and the American security staff banned any other activities in the castle. That was a heavy blow for Anna and her colleagues – also financially – but Anna Eklund-Tarantino is not the one who throws in the towel in a hurry, and like the Phoenix she rose from the ashes less than a half-year later – triumphantly it should be added.
The prerequisites were of course as ideal as could be wished: Rebaroque, playing on period instruments, have no superiors in Sweden – and few anywhere, the five soloists were a combination of experienced warhorses and rising stars, vocally and scenically consummate, and the Hall of State is the perfect venue, contemporaneous with Mozart and containing among other things Queen Kristina’s silver throne. The only drawback was, as it has always been, the uncomfortable, spine-unfriendly benches in the auditorium.
But back to the singers. Mats Carlsson, who embarked on a solo career relatively late, is that rare bird among tenors: equipped with brilliant top notes to bring the house down but tasteful and intelligent to save them for special occasions and instead obeying the composers’ intentions and work with nuances, lights and shadows. Scenically he has genuine authority – fitting for this King cum Warrior. His betrothed Aspasia, ruled by disparate feelings towards the king as well as both his sons, is a dream role for Anna Eklund-Tarantino whose expressivity is almost physically tangible and her variety of tone is marvellously telling. The original Aspasia in Milan didn’t trust the young Austrian’s ability to write suitable music for her and thus brought her own composer but she was completely won over when she saw what the foreigner had written – and he supplied plentiful opportunities for her to show off her technical brilliance. Anna Eklund-Tarantino indulged in the coloratura with the same frothy appetite.
Paula Hoffman, dressed in black as the collaborative Farnace, had red heels on her shoes, a reliable symbol of a cruel person who is prepared to trample any opponent in the mud. Paula was cut out for the role and delivered high-octane dramatic singing. In contrast the younger brother, Sifare, was all white and stood out as mild and tragic. Paulina Pfeiffer has in very short time risen to the front ranks of the younger generation of sopranos – I reviewed her Judit in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle two years ago at the Royal Opera very favourably (review) and this performance only confirmed that she is endowed with an uncommonly beautiful voice combined with power that points forward to spinto roles in due time.
Daniel Carlsson in the role as Ismene sported an impressive counter-tenor, even throughout the register and also very beautiful. It’s a shame he didn’t have more to sing. Counter-tenors of this class are still a rare breed on Northern latitudes.
I do hope that this successful project will generate future excursions in rare repertoire from the 18th century. There are other Mozart opera to revive, Lucio Silla, for instance, and why not his rival Salieri. For the time being I am, though, just happy to have been treated to such a marvellous performance. My admiration is directed to both Mozart and the superb ensemble.