[For the somewhat more coherent discussion and contemplation of the Brussels “Mitridate” (because the post below this one will likely only make sense to people who either blogged along or read the entire 340+ comments while streamwatching on the side), featuring, among others, Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia). Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.]
To make the start (now without Scotch, but with a strong coffee in hand): I enjoyed last night’s production far more than I thought I would. If you forced me to choose between Brussels and Paris, it would still be Paris, but I am very grateful that I have had the chance to see both (repeatedly, whom are we kidding) because it also puts the Paris take in a more pluridimensional light.
If I don’t talk about some singers below by name while talking about others a lot, it is also because I do not want to leave searchable bad reviews on anyone’s voice – some careless phrase can do damage to someone else’s livelihood and sometimes it is perhaps just the casting, or one director one does not click with, or someone having a bad day (as we all do), or perhaps *I* simply didn’t click with someone… and no one should have to pay for that.
Why would I choose Paris overall is perhaps a mean question to start with, but it is how I arrived at this production: with a very strong impression in mind, so I will keep comparing.
While I was delighted with much of the coloring and the accentuating Rousset chose, and intrigued by the more spread out sound and some of the tempo choices (even more so because he did not bring his own band, but worked with the Monnaie orchestra, which is not a trained Early Music body attuned to him), I am still sold to the rhythmic drive, vertical structure and phrase thinking under Haïm. I would not have been able to say this without hearing another very good take in Rousset, but what draws me to Haïm is the drive, and the way she thinks the music rhtythmically as an organism governed by breath.
Overall, I think the Paris casting was stronger. Brussels took four leads (some names not as big as their Paris counterparts) and stopped there. What last night also made me appreciate was the care and the quality brought to the table in Azzaretti (please come back and slouch against all the EU conference tables and boss around everyone in a high voice range!) and Dubois.
The Brussels take is entertaining, yet it is not shallow and parodist in the way of the recent Theater an der Wien “Agrippina”. Still, it has a lot less depth than Paris. Hervieu-Léger’s take in Paris is rooted in Racine in every impulse, all the motivations are tightly directed. You can nearly always see *why* a certain gesture, a stance, a look is happening (probably also testimony to a director who is first and foremost an actor). It is an approach both more heightened and more lyrical, a place out of time, out of any defined geography, and at its core are the emotions of the different characters.
Brussels puts the politics at the core and the very specific image of the EU today, and uses the characters more as illustrations: they do not drive the story through their decisions, they are all being driven by the political machine that is present in every video screen and every conference table and every contract folder. I do not think it is vapid, or purely decorative: it does have a point, but the point is not rooted in the character relations, it is rooted in the political backdrop. So, yes, it is amusing and also poignant to have Sifare and Aspasia push Aspasia’s marriage contract to Mitridate into a shredding machine for “Se viver non degg’io”, but it does in no way reach the gutting depth of the Paris take that focuses on the fear, the despair and the devotion of the doomed lovers. Brussels is more contemporary in its emotionality. Paris is high drama.
There are points in Brussels where things happen because someone apparently said “Do this” and not because it develops out of an emotional cue.
Papatanasiu has a far bigger scope to act with than Spyres here and at several moments, the scenic logic she follows is Paris, down to very small gestures and cues. I would guess that she brought this to the table or has not been given new prompts developed out of this more politics-based take.
Paris is more multidimensional and does not search for easy answers: it is the emotional impulse and its course, not tying it up with a bow, up to the open ending where we kept wondering what might happen to this Sifare and this Aspasia, together. I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but the satisfaction in the Brussels take, the relief all of us who were blogging along commented on when Sifare and Aspasia ended up holding hands, throws into sharper relief the Paris decision to show the conflicted emotions, and not forge it into a single, consecutive narrative (however rewarding that might have been).
The Brussels venue makes a difference, and not just because it is smaller: It is palpable that this is not an opera house, that this is a temporary set up, like the fake glass doors onstage. The smaller size of the hall, however, worked very well with the sound projection in some cases.
Michael Spyres as Mitridate comes across smoother in Brussels: he has to employ less power (some of this might be the change in conducting), resulting in a stronger focus on cultivated line, but also leading to so much control as to leave him looking more disengaged. Since he mostly gets put into politician’s poses, he also does not have as much to work with scenically. The one moment where he learns that Aspasia might have betrayed him with Farnace, and where he shoots up drugs, is quickly done, as if the sensationalist image would not need any explanation. Here, I would have liked to be able to follow the internal logic that would lead to this, and there has, as far as I see it, not been put anything discernible on the directors’ part into the backstory of this. Spyres in Paris had a lot more physical and vocal menace, he was a body bursting with power and strength and violence, but never as a pose. He has his strongest moments in Brussels when he draws from the Paris dramaturgy. And while his singing might be more sovereign here, his overall portrayal was more layered and intriguing (also, vocally more risqué, and paying off accordingly) in Paris.
While I have heard last night’s countertenor on recording before and enjoyed him, I was not entirely sold on his Farnace last night. Scenically, he has good presence and made an impression: he easily carried the somewhat caricature-evil bits he was given and made them worth watching. I am more reserved vocally. I don’t think it is a technical issue – he selectively showed off clear, unstrained top notes and flowing, smooth ornamentation. But that, to me, happened last night not consistently, and the overall impression of his sound, in coloring, was more than once uneven to me (and I do not go for uniform color at all – hello, Kasarova? That is kind of the whole selling point with Kasarova!): some vowels came across distorted, at times upper middle range projection got blocked by a tight inwards focus, which led to some phrases sounding garbled. Some reviews have pointed out that perhaps it was due to the overacting villain cues that bled into the vocal portrait, so perhaps that was the case.
I will have to listen more to Simona Šaturová’s Ismene. The role comes across completely different than in Paris, as an older politician more on the same level with Mitridate even as she is romantically linked to Farnace.
After the bedazzling coloratura take that was Devieilhe (and the youthful energy she projected, the being puzzled at being rejected because her Ismene had not lived though this yet), Šaturová is a 180 degree switch, but very enjoyable in her own right. Save for a barely-there strain in the very top notes, she has everything at her disposal, yet the arias, taken on as bigger, less rhythmic arcs, did not stand out as coloratura pieces, but rather as more contemplative. The voice is bigger, grounded in a middle range warmth that sounds lyrical. This was an Ismene who has seen how the machinery works, and who still allows herself to be vulnerable, and who tries to reach her goals with diplomacy.
After Petibon’s Aspasia, I thought myself ruined for any other take on the role, ever. I’m happy to report that that is not the case, even as I have to say that Petibon, in her exceptional, unrestrained commitment to roles and her fearless vocal acting, is truly unique, and I don’t really think anything or anyone could be quite on the same plane in the first place.
That aside, Lenneke Ruiten makes a great Aspasia. She may have a bit less sheer dazzle than Petibon, whose route was from coloratura to a fuller voice with more weight in the middle and lower ranges as well; Ruiten’s take is more coming from a solid core, but she, too, has everything at her disposal. Her structuring in phrasing is very different, and it results in a completely different portrait.
Ruiten made me reflect on Petibon, and how Petibon is an open knife in intensity. Ruiten came more from a place of centered self-placement, and delivered a really attractive Aspasia, too. She is more suave than Petibon’s urgency and absoluteness of emotion, also in portrayal – a parallel to Ismene here – less youthful. This Aspasia is a powerful and confident politician who knows the game, yet is human in her moments of vulnerability. There is no way to do Pallid’ombre and have it be superficial (at least there should be no way). Ruiten was touching here: desperate, but it was more tinged by sadness than by madness, more by melancholy than by tragedy. It was a strong moment for her – and it was, curiously, also one of Spyres’ strongest moments – when she is standing against that huge conference table, Mitridate holding out the poisoned bowl of cherries to her, unwaveringly, while she holds her ground, yet also finds her strength precisely in acknowledging her feelings.
This Aspasia is gold in the political talks, threatening across tables with the best of them, then putting up her feet and falling under Sifare’s spell with touching hesitation, despite the pleased knowing smile that earlier happened at his first admission of love (after this night, I really need to revisit the Scala “Silla” with Ruiten and Crébassa). I will likely go into much more detail in the comments and in upcoming weeks. At times despite the staging, the portrayal was overall convincing and well-rounded both vocally (one gets why she is such a champion at the Monnaie) and scenically.
The only points where Ruiten’s Aspasia was upstaged was when it came to Sifare. Papatanasiu really got to outshine everyone else scenically in this production, and also was at the very top of the food chain, if we want to establish one, vocally.
In my opinion, it shows that she has very recently worked on this part in great detail with the Paris production, and she brings this experience to the (conference) table in Brussels splendidly, with an awareness that allows her more ease in how she tackles her arias.
The smaller venue seems to work in her favor, too, since the warmth to her sound – that lyrical quality that is more Mozart than Verdi – was more pronounced here. Some of it may also have been work with Rousset, who has more of a horizontal approach with accents than the deep vertical rhetoric of Haïm that is more centered around rhythm than color.
In Paris, the Sifare arias are more different entities, from the slow burn of “Lungi da te” to the exuberance of “Soffre il mio cor con pace” to the distraught passion and drive of “Se’l rigor d’ingrata sorte”. In Brussels, they form more of a homogeneous idiom. The “Lungi da te” is quicker, the final aria slower (that was the only one where the different speed take did not quite work for me).
What stood out to me was the exceptional, unstrained warmth in the lower range in “Lungi da te” – Papatanasiu does not put any pressure on it and of course it shows that she is a soprano and not a mezzo, but it carried beautifully and created that kind of sound you relax into because it is both focused and at ease. It also shows that she has sung this piece a lot this year and really knows it inside out to great effect. And apart from the whole scenic issue of seducing Aspasia during it, I think it is, in this take, a very seductive piece vocally. Since the direction did not focus on tragic depth – in Paris, the whole number is yearning agony, even in beautiful sound, like the Lacanian essence of straining towards an impossible desired something – there was, also in the stage setting, more of a chance to simply bask in the glory of the vocal lines here, and in their immediately rewarding emotive effect.
Something I want to commend separately is Papatanasiu’s acting. And while she generally is a good actress, I think the Paris production (and perhaps also the stint alongside PP?) and her precise work on heightened emotionality there did flow into the Brussels take, as well. It is visible in small cues – reacting to being addressed, to other characters, in very small, organic gestures – as well as in building her bigger scenes.
I joked last night that she must have taken a page from the Petibon School of Unapologetic Looks, but that’s only partially joking: she really has a knack (not sure whether she has always had it) for underscoring turning points in the music and text with looks. And they are as unwavering and committed – and really stood out last night in comparison to everyone else – as Petibon’s Aspasia in Paris.
Trouser roles are always a bit of a touchstone: it shows immediately when someone is uncomfortable in them or whether someone can put the part first.
Papatanasiu showed here, again, an uncompromising honesty and commitment to the part taken on. We talked at length about her portrayal of non-toxic masculinity in Paris and I think it also shows in this production, again. Technically (I think she was bound, though, wasn’t she? To assure the fit of the shirt?), what she does, and to great and convincing effort – and she gets better in it across the course of the evening, too – is not putting on maleness (save for some work mainly with stance and step length and taking space), but simply evading movements that are coded as feminine, and then working from her own physicality.
To get to that on a conscious level is a lot of work I truly commend her for; many colleagues, despite singing trouser repertory a lot more often, never quite get there. It is a dedication and truthfulness unconcerned with offstage presentation or onstage glamor – something I would call artistic authenticity, perhaps? And that is what makes a convincing role portrayal (the attractiveness of this quality, or of this very role portrayal, is another thing, for which I refer you to last night’s more incoherent utterances). She fully came through on that.
One last, related note before I jump into the comment discussion below: If you thought that you had finally survived the heavy “Mitridate” slant when it comes to White Shirt Monday or overall trouser role photos on Eye Bags: uhm, no. I should probably apologize in advance there, because with the ammunition given last night, I think I will be able to screencap us quite comfortably into the foreseeable future.