[wear your suit correctly and you will get to hold hands with the Lady in Red. Fabulous singing probably helps, too. And the Ponytail of Righteous Coloratura. – Miah Persson (Sifare) and Netta Or (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate, Ré di Ponto”, Salzburg 2006]
Classes start again this week, so in between preparing the script and the performance for tomorrow, I’m taking a minute to think about Mozart’s seria output some more, and to promote the schoolboy asthetic of singers in short pants fighting over sopranos in dresses (in this case, red).
It’s more of the – from today’s Western perspective – twisted patrilinear backbone of both opera seria and patriarchal absolutism that we already talked about when it comes to “Idomeneo”. Mozart wrote this one about a decade before “Idomeneo”, still as a teenager (or barely as a teenager, since he was 14 when he premiered this opera) and he is not yet challenging the seria form here as he did later.
The story boils down to “Who gets the girl?” (but then, which story doesn’t?)
Princess Aspasia has been bartered off to Kind Mitridate in a May-December engagement, but then Mitridate is presumed dead and his two sons, Sifare (written for a high castrato voice, which is why it is cast with a soprano instead of with a mezzo) and Farnace (mezzo) start fighting over who gets to marry Aspasia – who is conveniently already living at court with them – now. Aspasia and Sifare have long since fallen in love, Farnace is meanwhile rejecting his fiancée Ismene and keeps hitting on Aspasia like Hook hits on Emma (unable to understand that “no” means “no”). As brothers do, Sifare and Farnace also fight about everything else, particularly when it comes to the political alliances they favor.
Then Mitridate makes a triumphant return, which makes things rather awkward and the brothers agree to keep quiet about their pursuit of Aspasia. Naturally, we have Sifare/Aspasia do the “I want to! But I can’t! He is my father/fiancé!” (it is like Don Carlos, only without the sexy mezzo princess, but also without tenors. You win some, you lose some) level of pining for each other and sighing and still obeying the fatherly law and perhaps it has never sounded better. Mitridate (again Richard Croft, whom I want in all my Mozart seria like I want nutmeg in my scrambled eggs: it’s not even up for debate!) has a bit of an anger management problem, since he manages to incarcerate and threaten with death first Farnace (for going after Aspasia) then Aspasia, because he suspects her to have slept with one of his sons already, and finally also SIfare, when he finds out that he and Aspasia would like to be lovers if it weren’t for him. The only one he does not threaten, with either death or marriage, is Ismene, who should be voted into the diplomatic staff of the White House for that accomplishment.
In the end, Mitridate loses another battle and kills himself to not be captured, but he does still condone the union of Sifare and Aspasia (cue to more than handholding, hopefully), and then Farnace decides that marrying Ismene is probably the smarter move, anyway.
The 2006 Günther Krämer production is solid, clear and entertaining, and captures the bickering siblings in short pants well (and Bejun Mehta is fabulous here). Netta Or gives a regal Aspasia, Ingela Bohlin a both poised and vulnerable Ismene (and no, it does not precisely hurt to look at her, either), and Bejun Mehta (Farnace) and Miah Persson (Sifare) feed off each other’s stage energy like no tomorrow. THey skulk and pout and swagger (the production should get special lesbain street cred for the extensive use of Doc Martens’) through the set and dish out coloratura and legato alike meanwhile in a way that makes me wish this were Cesti’s “Pomo d’oro” and would take six hours. Another reason: Marc Minkowski is conducting.
Miah Persson is usually associated with Fiordiligi when it comes to her Mozart singing (also, I will never be over her Zerlina) and commands a large skirt repertory (has anyone seen her as Adina in Villazón’s Western “Elisir d’amore”?), but clearly she can also hold her own in a pair of short trousers while tossing languid looks at the soprano primadonna. There is a lot of genuine gentleness in her performance, but she also throws herself into the bratty teenage exuberance/youthful heroic of the part and creates a much less sterotyped and very touching display of masculinity, much closer to the universal struggle of growing adulthood as a conditio humana (but it’s not the “still girly, lets call it beyond gender as an euphemism” take that often happens with sopranos in pants, who are at times simply unaccustomed to broadcasting masculinity comfortably from within a female body).
[Aspasia clearly has some plans that involve less patrilinear adherence. Also, probably less clothing. – Miah Persson (Sifare) and Netta or (Aspasia) in Moazart’s “Mitridate”, Salzburg 2006. ]
And if you aren’t sure whether you can make through another three hours of privileged old white men rallying against change and common sense, well, at least in Mozart, that comes with SINGING and ladies in pants and mezzo voices and the tenor losing out in the end. In case of doubt, you could always start with “Lungi da te”, which is basically the summary of White Shirt opera at large: pining in pants, packaged in 11 minutes of sublime Mozart singing by Miah Persson. The rest is up in full for your viewing pleasure over at YT, as well.
[YT links with thanks to zauber620]