Mitridate, re di Ponto, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, June 2017Posted on 27 June 2017
If beautiful singing and eighteenth century stage spectacle appeals, then Graham Vick’s production of this early Mozart opera, in Paul Brown’s bold designs and gloriously elaborate costumes, certainly hits the spot.
The title character, Mithridates VI reigned as king of Pontus, a region comprising much of northern Anatolia and coastal areas of the Black Sea, claiming Persian and Greek descent from Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, and Alexander the Great. He was a thorn in the side of the Roman Republic during the first century BC before his death in 63 BC, which occurs at the end of this opera. In the meantime, in true eighteenth century style we witness romantic entanglements, family conflict, unexpected reversals, and eventual resolution.
The story, based on a play by Racine, concerns Mitridate and his two sons Farnace (Pharnaces) and Sifare (Xiphares), who compete for the love of their father’s betrothed, Aspasia. Mitridate’s appearance part way through Act I brings in Farnace’s betrothed Ismene, but the real attraction is between Sifare and Aspasia whose mutual love remains undeclared until late in Act II when they resolve to die together. The Romans are an ever-present threat to which the brothers take opposite sides, the pro-Roman Farnace being a traitor to his father, and although in Racine’s play he remains that way to the end, in the opera he reverses himself and marries Ismene, while Mitridate dies after uniting Sifare and Aspasia.
This 1770 work lay unperformed for two hundred years until 1971, yet it contains wonderful arias, beautifully performed under the excellent baton of baroque expert Christophe Rousset. In the role of Aspasia, Albina Shagimuratova showed lovely long vocal lines plus huge precision and feeling, and as Ismene, Lucy Crowe sang exquisitely, her strong and gentle Act III aria about brutal revenge not being the answer eliciting huge cheers. As the princes, American counter-tenor Bejun Mehta sang a strong and determined Farnace, and Georgian soprano Salome Jicia made an admirably masculine Sifare in her ROH debut, singing a lovely duet with Ms Shagimuratova at the end of Act II. As Mitridate himself, Michael Spyres brought great vocal warmth to the stage, and I loved his silent entrances in Acts I and III, the heavy thump of feet warning of impending changes to the circumstances.
Fine contributions from soprano Jennifer Davis as the local governor Arbate, and Rupert Charlesworth as the Roman Consul Marzio whose hopes of recruiting Farnace as a Roman puppet king are dashed when he reverses himself at the end. This may not be real history, though Mitridate really did arrange his own death after a Roman defeat in 63 BC, but as a vehicle for glorious singing this was a delight.
Performances continue on various dates until July 7, with a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast on July 1 — for details click here.