Mozart - Mitridate, re di Ponto

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday October 21 2007

Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth. Production: Robert Carsen. Sets: Radu Boruzescu. Costumes: Miruna Boruzescu. Mitridate: Bruce Ford. Aspasia: Mary Dunleavy. Sifare: Myrtò Papatanasiu. Farnace: Bejun Mehta. Ismene: Veronica Cangemi. Marzio: Maxim Mironov. Arbate: Jeffrey Francis. Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie.

It's always interesting to have a Robert Carsen production in your season's schedule, but Carsen is no more infallible than anyone else and this was, I thought, not one of his successes - a pity with such a strong, even cast. For this new Brussels Mitridate, he served up our old "friend" the "contemporary war update" i.e. with people in battledress and helmets, cradling machine guns. Apart from the fact that these productions all look the same (especially as opera seria plots all seem much the same as well) and we've got used to them since the 80s, I think if this had to be done to Mitridate, Peter Sellars would have done it better. Carsen is probably better at poetry than violence. Sellars would have generated a sense of menace, but Carsen's extras looked just that: extras with guns.

The set was a bit like the one for last season's Paris Lohengrin, only smaller. The constant was a smashed concrete ceiling, with a tangle of steel mesh and broken square columns dangling in mid-air. Things changed beneath this, a series of grey sets with 50s metal office furniture. In Act 1, we were in a bombed-out army HQ; the giant slabs torn from the ceiling were piled on the floor - actually creating a useful multi-level space - and strewn with papers cleverly snatched up by a horde of soldiers when it was known Mitridate was to return. Act 2 opened in what appeared to be Farnace's bedroom, for there he was on the bed, leafing through a porn mag with his trousers round his ankles and his hand down his underpants. This gave us the most amusing moment of the afternoon, as Ismene's opening line is "Is this the love, Farnace, is this the fidelity you swore to me?" But shortly after, he was turfed out by guards and Mitridate himself appeared through the bathroom door, finishing his morning shave - so it was his bedroom after all. In Act 3, a long table was set for a meal, flanked by rows of metal chairs; when battle finally broke out, it broke out in slow motion (and dim lighting) round this table, to reveal the bloodied dead as the lights went up. Overall, the (striking) lighting was of two kinds: unflattering white neon, from above, or strong, lateral beams from floor level, casting dramatic shadows.

As you see above, there was a deal of detail to the acting, but often my feeling was Carsen strained to "furnish", as the French say, the long dal segno arias. Yet they hardly needed it as the cast was very good, the only weak point being Aspasia's first (admittedly cruel) aria. Mary Dunleavy was more at ease afterwards. The excellent young Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu was somehow reminiscent of Sophie Koch (she had the "lower" soprano role of Sifare). Veronica Cangemi was a good deal better-cast here than in killer Händel cantatas under Emmanuelle Haïm a couple of seasons back (when, admittedly, she was standing in for Natalie Dessay).

Bejun Mehta was on great form (though Carsen seems to confirm that all directors see counter-tenors as childish, petulant lecher characters), as was Bruce Ford. It was interesting to get a first glimpse of Maxim Mironov as well: a YouTube clip of him singing Lindoro in L'italiana caused quite a buzz on the French web a few months back. Only Carsen had him sing his one aria from the rear top of the stage (there was a crumbling concrete ledge up there, a fragment of floor left over from the bombings) so it was hard to tell if the voice was really quite small, or just stifled. Quite small, I'm afraid, and in the end the buzz was probably due to his looks.

In case anyone doesn't know, there's an excellent recording of this work with Giuseppe Sabbatini, Natalie Dessay, Cecilia Bartoli, Brian Asawa, Sandrine Piau and - talk about luxury casting - Juan Diego Flórez as Marzio. Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques are a lot fleeter of foot than Mark Wigglesworth and the Monnaie band, even though the latter were being as HIP as they could: no vibrato for the strings and, just to make things harder, no valves on the horns.


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