Mozart - Mitridate, re di Ponto

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 15 2016

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production and costumes: Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil - Le Lab. Sets and lighting: Rick Martin. Video: Jean-Baptiste Beïs. Mitridate: Michael Spyres. Aspasia: Lenneke Ruiten. Sifare: Myrtò Papatanasiu. Farnace: David Hansen. Ismene: Simona Šaturová. Marzio: Sergey Romanovsky. Arbate: Yves Saelens. Orchestra of La Monnaie.

Mozart
Waffle-warning: this account is going to start with a fair amount of waffle not all directly related to yesterday's performance of Mitridate. Feel free to skip the digression. To help, I will mark the start of the write-up proper clearly in CAPITALS. But first, the waffle...

These must be nail-racking, nerve-biting times for the people in charge of La Monnaie. The house was already supposed to be hard up, as they all are these days. Then it announced that its home, the Théâtre Royal, seriously needed renovating, so last season's performances took place in various other venues around Brussels, as mentioned in my write-ups e.g. of Adès's Powder her Face.

Work started late and will go on longer than expected (fancy that!), so the company looked around for alternatives and finally decided it would recycle a big top used for opera in Liège and put up for sale in 2014 for half a million euros. This was, it transpired, too clapped-out to be reused. The upshot is that La Monnaie has, in the end, as I said in my April account of Béatrice et B., erected a brand-new plastic hangar on industrial waste ground a fair distance, across uneven terrain, from any main road. A double-decker London bus has been parked on the bare earth, halfway there, to sell champagne to those desperate for a drink on the way. Some shuttle buses and golf carts and extra staff have been laid on for those, such as old and infirm patrons, who find the trek too much. And anyone in a wheelchair has to take the long way round (reminding me of a sign that used to be posted at a back door to the Gare de l'Est in Paris, saying that the entrance for people with restricted mobility was 500 metres to the left).

To (big) top it all (OK, that pun is cringe-making; but I could also have made a joke out of waffle-warning, in the Belgian context, but didn't...) to top it all, as I was saying, management found they could not put on their existing, Carsen production of Mitridate there, so they literally put the show out to tender with a call for proposals. I believe they got more than 100, and what we saw yesterday was the winning bid, by Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil from an outfit in Bordeaux called "Le Lab".

It turns out, as I also said in April, that La Monnaie's shiny new tent is not only stiflingly hot when the sun's out, but also right on the flight path for planes landing at Zaventem (I was told, and it may be true, that pilots follow the nearby canal). It is anything but soundproof. During B & B, in addition to planes (at that particular time mercifully few, as the airport was only just cautiously re-opening after the March terrorist attack) and despite the very audible rumble and rush of the ineffectual ventilators, I heard birds chirping on the roof, let alone kids playing outside and police cars screaming by. In other words, the new venue is, if truth be told, unfit for purpose and a trial to all: above all, I should think, to the conductor, singers and orchestra, but also to the audience. Even with seats closer to the stage (my present ones are too far away to see who's singing), I'm not looking forward to next season there. And I'm sorry to say that even today I had a message from an acquaintance saying "The hangar was awful. We're not returning until they do the old theatre up." Bad news for a struggling house.

MITRIDATE STARTS HERE

Mitridate is a work that needs help, not hindrances. It is about as undramatic as they come, so it was perhaps as well that the new production kept people amused (though I did wonder "aloud" as it were, on Facebook this morning, whether opera seria based on Racine ought actually to amuse us). The concept was not, as La Libre Belgique complained at some length ("un sentiment de déjà-vu et d’ennui..."), novel, but unlike La Libre Belgique most people seemed ready to indulge it in return for being kept awake, in the airless heat of the tent, by its perpetual movement and changes of focus from live action to video.

The work was set in modern Europe and indeed contemporary Brussels: the Roman Union v. the Pontus Kingdom. The hall was decked with the EU member states' flags, interspersed with TV screens frequently flashing "breaking news", CNN- or BBC-style, complete with Angela Merkel, David Cameron and François Hollande, and even before we were in our seats, outside in the foyer, a makeshift shrine to the supposedly-late Mitridate had sprung up, a bank of flowers, candles, teddy-bears, flags and hand-written messages like those that appeared after the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

On stage was a functional summit conference-room with a large oval table surrounded by chairs. At times, screens and other panels were wheeled in to create a more intimate space of easy-chairs and coffee tables; barriers kept jostling journalists at bay; a lectern appeared for speech-making. Costumes were resolutely contemporary: politicians' suits for the men, suits and stilettos for the women, smartphones and video-screens were much stared-at, and at one point Marzio lounged against a wall eating a cornet of chips. Mitridate, looking back to the legend, at one stage rolled up his sleeves to inject himself, at another took pills, and his fatal gesture, at the end, was to unplug a drip from his arm.

By now far from innovative, but entertaining enough. It might prove telegenic.

I was, as I said, a long way from the stage. I wished I were nearer, as I'm almost certain this was an all-round excellent cast, and if I'd been closer the roar of landing jets overhead would have been less worrisome. The women's singing was impeccably musical and manicured, sweet-toned and modest: top notes were not played to the gallery but almost systematically (with some very impressive exceptions) kept short and vibrato-free. It was peculiarly consistent, as if all three had been to the same school, under the same teacher - there was relatively little contrast between them. For a time I felt frustrated at the primness of it, wishing for more dramatic thrills. But then it struck me that the fault, if such it could be called in the circumstances, was perhaps more young Mozart's than theirs: his score is stronger on introversion (the sad bits, you might say) than drama. And if I'd been nearer the stage, I might have experienced more oomph.

David Hansen was more obviously dramatic, with a more striking, resounding counter-tenor voice than I expected (with my usual prejudices against counter-tenors in opera). A nice surprise. Michael Spyres has had good reviews (e.g. "... in this very difficult role that requires all the skills from rapid notes to jumps and a variety of affections he is almost exceptional"*), so perhaps yesterday was an off-day, understandable in a long run of such an impossible role: he sounded perilously stretched at some points, though at others his warm, grainy timbre, more powerfully projected than his colleagues', was thrilling.

In 2007 I wrote "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." Well, this time Rousset was in the pit, so the band was as fleet-footed and bouncy as you could wish for. It was a good thing, I thought, it was Rousset and not Christie, as I'm almost certain the latter would have downed his baton (if he used one) and stomped off as the umpteenth plane roared overhead. Rousset had at times to gesticulate almost wildly to help his soloists keep time over the din.

But to my relief, as any interruptions would have made Mitridate in the hot tent even longer, he soldiered on and we ended right on time.

*Il giardino di Armida.

Maestro Wenarto sings even earlier Mozart.

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