Mitridate – About Mozart’s Opera

19 Mar

Mitridate, Re di Ponto – Dec. 26, 1770.

Mitridate was written when Mozart was around fifteen years old in 1770. This is interesting to keep in mind while enjoying the opera, because many of the themes and characters that the teenage Mozart chooses to emphasize through his music reflect this fact. His music gains strength and momentum every time he deals with the emotions teenagers understand best.

The play was written by Vittorio Santi and adapted from a tragedy by Jean Racine. The opera is a traditional Opera Seria, which is an opera in which each character takes turns singing a single aria alone, wherein they comment on the plot and how they feel about it, often through vivid (though sometimes fairly lame) poetry. Ensembles are rare, and usually occur at the end of acts.

This is the original title page to Mozart’s Mitridate libretto.

Mitridate tells the story of the monarch of Pontus who is off at war against Pompey the Great. His two teenage sons, Sifare and Farnace, who have been left behind to guard their nation’s cities, have both fallen in love with their Father’s new bride, Aspasia.

Aspasia is terrified of Farnace, due to his passionate advances, and she hires Sifare to protect her. Sifare and Aspasia then fall in love just about the time Mitridate returns from battle. The King is accompanied by Farnace’s own betrothed, Ismene.

A Roman Tribune, Marzio, has befriended the bad son Farnace and means to turn him against his own country to allow the Roman conquest of Pontus.

When Mitridate and Ismene sort out what is going on, the King sentences both his sons and Aspasia to death. Just as Aspasia is about to be poisoned, the Romans invade the country, and Mitridate hastens to battle.

Ismene sets Sifare free just in time to join the fight.

Marzio storms the prison and frees Farnace, hoping he will betray his country, but instead the boy betrays the Romans and sets fire to their fleet.

Mitridate is defeated in battle and commits suicide, and as he lays dying he forgives his sons and fiancee. Aspasia, Sifare, Ismene and Farnace then vow to protect their country from any who would rob them of their freedom.

A close up of my image of Farnace. Mitridate, Act III by Tyson Vick, detail.

It is interesting to note that Mozart manages to give the title character, Mitridate, a unique musical voice that stands out clearly from all the rest. The character Mitridate’s music involves no coloratura or difficult embellishments like that of the other roles. This was due mainly to the original actors’ capabilities. He couldn’t perform the intense coloratura passages, but had a perfect pitch that could make use of large octave leaps. Mitridate’s distinct voice was then coupled with solid musical pacing. He has few or no touches of pathos, his tyranny reigning supreme. This is in total contrast to the rest of the cast who have arias that span the broad range of human emotions. Essentially, the unique voice devised by Mozart puts Mitridate apart from the rest of the cast and specifies him as the title character, which is stunningly creative approach.

Santi’s dramatic focus is firmly situated around the characters of Sifare and Aspasia, who would be played by the two romantic leads, with the lead antagonist (and lead character) being that of Mitridate himself. However, Mozart redirects the focus, through music, towards Farnace, giving him both some of the best and most dramatically engaging music in the opera. Farnace is the embodiment of all the mood swings and yearnings that come with being a teenager. When you consider what holds a teenage boy’s interest, these things are all present in Farnace. He is lusty, belligerent, violent and selfish. Farnace’s backstabbing tirade against his brother, his anger at his sexual advances being denied by Aspasia, and especially his lament at the end where his shame overcomes him and he repents, all reflect such universal truths from the lives of young men that it’s no wonder the teenage Mozart found the character’s musical voice so clearly.

On the other hand, with the very adult pathos behind Sifare and Mitridate’s love for Aspasia, and the emotional torment Aspasia goes through because of it, Mozart uses both melody and vocal agility to capture the emotions, rather than the clever emotional painting with which he would later become a master. Where his later operas would combine both pyrotechnics with this emotional painting, his earlier operas tend to use more of the pyrotechnics. Mozart’s genius was well ahead of his life-experience, and expecting a fifteen year old boy to be able to capture all the wild ups and downs of love, the horrors of betrayal, and emotional yearnings of both men and women already fully developed is just a little absurd, even though these are the main themes of Santi’s Mitridate.

Because Mitridate is entirely composed of show-off arias, there isn’t an aria that doesn’t test the limits of the human voice. Wild lines of coloratura, huge octave leaps and scales up and down the entire vocal range are featured in nearly every song – with occasional breaks for long legato phrases. This is particularly true of Aspasia. Originally, the young Mozart began to write music for the lead actress before having met her. She was to come later with her own music, which she had performed in an earlier setting of the play, and then decide which music to use; would she use her own, or Mozart’s? Once she showed up, she was so delighted with Mozart’s music that she scrapped what Mozart had already written for her and worked together with him to sculpt Aspasia’s arias specifically to her own vocal capabilities. This, of course, is best reflected by Aspasia’s first aria (and opening number to the play) which may be one of the finest, most thrilling arias ever to open an opera seria.

At this point in his career Mozart was still following rules instead of making them, for as we know, the young man decided to start making up his own rules a few years down the line. So, while his genius is still young, Mozart presents us with a wildly entertaining opera about a tyrant King, his two belligerent sons, a tormented queen and a foreign Princess who wanders around wondering what the crap is going on.

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