White Shirt Monday: Back To Old School


[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).

coloraturaandatiewillgetyouanywhere[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]

4 thoughts on “White Shirt Monday: Back To Old School”

  1. I don’t think I even moved through this whole spell-binding performance.
    Wow – that was a severely pruned libretto! I kept missing my place since the diction was a bit of a challenge to follow (except for Mitridate, who I did hear clearly) – maybe the sound was a bit muffled. I caught myself wondering how this might have sounded had Tuva Semmingsen played Farnace – and yes, I absolutely see why you thought Bejun Mehta was great. It might have been interesting have a mezzo in this part and also to have two Scandinavians command the stage! I had never heard of Netta Or before, and what a thrill it was to hear her for the first time. I didn’t even notice time passing until the very end.
    “Kill the bad father” seems to be a crude but apt summing-up for me of Mitridate and Idomeneo – though both works are amply compensate for their time-worn mores by some utterly celestial music. It seemed to me that Mozart gave Mitridate some pretty punishing parts to sing. A couple of those intervals sounded to me like octaves. Could that have been a bit of transference/filial revenge? But perhaps he spared no one when he inserted all those vocal fireworks in the main roles.
    Thank you again for all the delights you find to post.


    1. it’s lovely to see there is someone enjoying them!
      yes, the counters in the mezzo roles – I try not to be so shallows about it (and I really love Mehta here, and I guess the same would go for Dumaux), but on a gut level (and my guts are GAY), I will usually go for the woman in pants.
      The ornamental writing style is customary for mid-century seria, the more emotional take on like, in aprt already established by Handel in vocal line in some of his works, comes later, and is much more audible in “Idomeneo”. I don’t know whether Mozart reflected his own position as a dependent son and reigned being here (I am inclined to believe that he did so in “Idomeneo”), but of course he did put it into music, and I enjoyed the staging trying to take a stance on that, too, right from the dancers in the overture.


  2. I am completely with you on a preference of Mezzos over Counters – there is so much more excitement with Mezzos, especially for lesbians!
    Last night I saw the Met (in HD) season opener “Il Trovatore” which was just thrilling, and it gave me a bit of a mental chuckle to once again see the plot device of two brothers fighting over the same woman!
    Did you notice that in this “Mitridate” the libretto had big chunks of what might have been the recitative removed? I kept losing my place because I wanted to read all the skipped parts. I am guessing it was recitative, but for all I know it could have been real singing parts.
    I think it is likely that Mozart did have a preoccupation with paternal roles. Just look – at how the theme repeats – in LCDT there is an attempt on the life of Tito (who represents the good father/ruler) by Sesto a ‘son substitute’. Then finally we come in DZ to Pamina (now the conflict has been transferred to female roles) is urged to murder Sarastro. It is almost as if Mozart was on a path of ever decreasing lethality until in DZ there is only a failed plot to kill the father. Maybe I’m completely off – I don’t know – it might be that I have the kind of mind that looks for themes, and it could be just coincidence after all.


    1. It’s probable they trimmed it down – I don’t “Mitridate” that well, but tend to listen without the libretto (pronunciation, as you pointed out, is pretty good here).

      I would agree that Mozart had father issues, and add the cautionary notes that a) the 18th century subject is (I had a conference fight about precisely this the other week) not to be captured fully by Freudian psychology and b) that much of 18th century discourse regarding the political and the emergence of emancipation is coded in father relations.


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