Friday, May 20, 2011

14 year old boys can be so cruel!

I went on Wednesday night to hear the New York stage premiere of Mr. Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto, presented by Little Opera Theatre of NY.  This is one of dear Wolfie's early works, first performed in 1770, when he was 14.  The opera is in the typical opera seria style of the time, with a typical opera seria plot--while the king's away, the brats will play.   You don't really need to know much more than that, and in fact, I've just enlightened you to the plots of a great number of 18th-century opera seria.  You may thank me at your leisure.  

It pains me to say this, but my own experience with Mozart's early works is that they are by and large not especially interesting.  Certainly not on the level of his mature works.  In some ways that is excruciatingly true of this early opera.  It seemed as if every aria was "Martern aller Arten"--young Wolfie seemed to have thrown all of his 14 year old bag of tricks into each aria.  How I longed for a duet or trio, or a lyric aria instead of a florid one.  In fact, the duet "Se viver non degg’io" and Aspasia's last act aria "Pallid' ombre" are so different from the remainder of the opera that it is almost startling.

Nicholas Tamagna as Farnace and Andrew Drost as Mitridate
Source:  Little Opera Theatre of NY
Once again I happily praise that shiny-panted countertenor Nicholas Tamagna.  As Farnace, the brat prince who pursues the absent king's main squeeze and also conspires against the king, Mr. Tamagna gave us beautifully nuanced singing and committed acting.  His final aria, "Già dagli occhi", would have been incredibly moving if not for the unsuccessful stage business going on around him.  My admiration for this man's singing and acting continues to grow.

Also deserving of special praise is Claudia Acevedo, who sang Ismene, the foreign princess to whom Farnace is betrothed for political reasons.  In another vocal comparison to Die Entführung aus dem Serail--and there will be more--I'd compare Ismene to Blondchen, and Ms. Acevedo has the goods.  Beautiful, free high notes, mostly even singing throughout her range, and a believable portrayal of the wronged Ismene made the lovely Ms. Acevedo a joy to watch and hear.  

Serena Benedetti as Sifare and Erica Millera as Aspasia
Source:  Little Opera Theatre of NY
The other two women's roles--Sifare, the good brat prince, and Aspasia, the main squeeze, who have fallen in love but are both willing to forsake love for duty--were beautifully sung by mezzo Serena Benedetti and soprano Erica Miller.  Both roles are written with unforgiving coloratura and high notes, and both women sang and acted them admirably.  Both women warmed up vocally as the evening dragged wore on, and after entrance arias only slightly shaky, gave beautiful performances with the literally forty-eleven other arias each had.  As I mention above, their duet  "Se viver non degg’io" was one of the treats of the evening. In this duet we began to see hints of the mature Mozart, with the vocal lines at first in dialogue with each other, then in "John!--Marsha!--John!--Marsha!" responses to each other, and finally together as the two fully acknowledge their love.

Mozart is purported to have hated tenors, and there is ample evidence in this score.  Blake Friedman is a fine young singer whom I've heard before.  A young lyric tenor who will grow into fuller lyric repertoire, he would be a great choice for any sane Mozart role or Nemorino.  I think he was miscast as Marzio, the Roman agent in cohoots with bad brat prince Farnace.  The role requires a tenorino.  While Mr. Friedman has the Cs and Ds required of the single aria Marzio sings, the writing of that aria requires a male Blondchen, not a Tamino.  

As Mitridate himself, tenor Andrew Drost was also miscast.  Mitridate requires the dramatic singing of Idomeneo, but with the tessitura of a male Konstanze.  His many arias require low notes, high notes, coloratura, passion, and bravura.  I have heard Mr. Drost sing very well, but this is not the role for him vocally.  I will praise his committed portrayal of the many conflicting emotions of Mitridate, who must balance love, jealousy, and rage over actual and perceived betrayals.  

I wonder whether the production team hate tenors, too.    I simply can not agree with some of the decisions that I ascribe to conductor Richard Cordova or director  Philip Schneidman.  Why not make other casting decisions, or adapt or transpose some or all of the tenor arias?   I think Mr. Drost was advised to sing his entrance aria sotto voce to portray the broken Mitridate, but it didn't work.  And it must be said the costumer and director did the Mr. Friedman no favors at all.  I'm told the intention was to make Marzio, admittedly a slimy character, look like a skeevy punker, but he actually looked like an evil Alfalfa in a long leather trench coat and ridiculous hair.  The audience laughed when Mr. Friedman threw off the trench coat, revealing the, which must have been disconcerting.

There was a lot to like in this production, and aside from the missteps I name and a few others--a slow motion battle between Roman and Pontian forces behind Farnace's final aria? really?--I came away glad I'd seen the production.  It is clear this company is committed to creating credible and professional performances of rare opera for an eager New York audience.  They are successful fund raisers, clearly, with money wisely spent on facilities (the Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Auditorium at JCC), costumes by Sara James, an orchestra that seemed to know and appreciate what it was playing most of the time.  Lighting by Natalie Robin and scenery composed of sliding drapes made effective use of projections by Alex Koch.  Introductory images during the overture included a succession of maps of Asia minor to illustrate where Pontus is as well as a Mitridate family tree.  LOTNY knows what it is doing, and the issues I describe didn't make me regret seeing this opera.  I hope to see more from this group in the future.

1 comment:

Susan Morton said...

David, thanks for your well-thought out assessment of the evening. I am so looking forward to seeing now, even more than before!