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Opera on DVD: "Mitridate"

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W. A. Mozart, Mitridate, Rè di Ponto, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (re-released on April 11, 2006)
While the 14-year-old Mozart was traveling in Italy with his father, he received a commission to create an opera for the court theater of the Duke of Milan. In 1770, his opera seria Mitridate, Rè di Ponto was premiered there as part of the Christmas festivities. The libretto is an Italian translation and adaptation, by Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi, of Jean Racine's tragedy Mithridate (or, rather, Giuseppe Parini's Italian translation of that play). The opera was performed 21 times in Milan that winter and then promptly forgotten until the 20th century, and it is still very rarely performed. Mozart would premiere two more operas in Milan, Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1772).

Mozart, Idomeneo, Metropolitan Opera (May 31, 2006)
Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (May 9, 2006)
This film version of the opera, re-released on DVD in honor of the Mozart Year, was originally released in 1987 and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Ponnelle is the unifying link of the three Mozart DVDs I have reviewed this year, along with Idomeneo on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and La Clemenza di Tito, like Mitridate filmed on location with a prerecorded soundtrack. For the antique setting of Mitridate -- the Crimea in the first century B.C. -- Ponnelle selected the stunning background of Andrea Palladio's neoclassical Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy. The sound is usually the Achilles' heel of this sort of project, and here the singers, recorded in the Casino Zögernitz in Vienna, are made to sound as if they are in the echo-prone spaces of a vast Palladian edifice (even adjusted, clumsily, for distance from the camera). The effect can be jarring. The story is made even more confusing than the original libretto, with three roles created in Milan by castrati, and sung here by two women (the satin-voiced Ann Murray, as Sifare, and an overdark and unfortunately forced Anne Gjevang, as Farnace) and a boy soprano, Massimiliano Roncato (a soloist from the Gorgonzola Boys' Choir), in the role of Arbate, Governor of Nymphæa. Ponnelle, in his most daring liberty, transforms the latter role into Mitridate's youngest son, commenting on what has happened in his family.

The music is beautifully performed, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Concentus Musicus Wien, and the singing is generally excellent. However, the principal advantage of making an opera into this sort of film is to avoid the stagy nature of opera productions. A good example is Petr Weigl's shockingly graphic film version of Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, from 1992. There actors, not singers, mouth the words and create the filmed action. By contrast, Ponnelle's film still looks very much like a staged production, to the degree that it probably would have about the same look if it had been recorded live on an opera theater stage. Pet Halmen's outrageous costumes -- enormous skirts supported by poles, enormous hats, ridiculous wigs -- have nothing to do with the libretto's setting (as I mentioned before, these flamboyant productions were probably the model for Paul Brown's costumes in the Santa Fe Lucio Silla). In a Bonus Track on the DVD, Ponnelle explains (in German -- he spent much of his youth and adult life in Germany), why he made the film in Vicenza, a narration that refers to the legendary acoustics of Palladio's theater (irrelevant, since the sound was recorded elsewhere) and to the possibility that Mozart may have passed through Vicenza on his Italian travels and come into contact with the work of Palladio (intriguing, but not based on any provable fact).

Gösta Winbergh is a potent, vengeful, wide-eyed Mitridate, one of the great tenor roles in Mozart's operas, an unjust predecessor of the perfect ruler lionized in La Clemenza di Tito. Yvonne Kenny is splendid as Aspasia, the woman promised to Mitridate and pursued by both of his feuding sons (the castrato roles mentioned above). This Mitridate is a fascinating visual document of the stylized sort of production that Ponnelle really pioneered in his career, and musically it beats out the only other version of DVD, from the Royal Opera in the 1990s, which is just as odd visually as Ponnelle's. I sincerely hope that one of Ponnelle's other major video collaborations with Harnoncourt, the three operas of Monteverdi mounted by the same team at the Zurich Opera in the 1970s, will soon be released on DVD.


Anonymous said...

Lovely review. There is actually another Mitridate on DVD, from Lyon in 1986 and with the same splendid Aspasia - see here.

But the Ponnelle film still beats it hands down. It's one of my favourite things in all the world.

Charles T. Downey said...

Sarah, thanks for the comment. I will make a note of the Lyon production you mention.

jfl said...

It's the only Ponelle that I can tolerate - Don't like his Cosi one bit and can't even imagine the torture of watching his Clemenza. Alas, if only Mitridate was 60, 80 minutes shorter. I always felt you'd have to be a hard-core Mozartian or very into less-than-inspired neo-retro-pseudo-baroque opera (or, without being cute: opera that was near-anachronistic at even at the time of making) to really dig it. It's the street-crack to the pure cocaine that Haendel is. :)