Mozart wrote this opera when he was fourteen. The libretto, by Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi, is based on a play by Racine. The characters in the story are historical – or at least, a few of them are. This is a fairly typical opera seria sort of story.
Mitridate is the king of Pontus, which is in what is now Turkey. He is at war with Rome. He has two sons, Sifare and Farnace. He has a lady friend, Aspasia. Sifare and Farnace are both in love with Aspasia, who loves Sifare. Farnace used to love Ismene, who is one of those princesses who hangs about royal entourages and is probably an exile from somewhere relatively unimportant. Ismene still loves Farnace.
And then there are the Romans. Farnace allies himself with the Romans, betraying his father, but he changes his mind. Mitridate finds out about this, and about all the business with his sons and Aspasia, and nearly everyone almost dies, but it works out in the end. Only Mitridate actually dies, after a self-inflicted wound after losing a battle with the Romans, but it’s the sort of delayed-action opera seria stab wound that gives you plenty of time to reconcile with your family before you clock out, so as I said, it all ends happily enough, with everyone determined to go and wreak havoc upon the Romans. Good look with that, everyone!
The Royal Opera has done something really neat in this production. As noted, this is an opera seria. If not handled correctly opera seria can feel stilted to a modern audience. In general, after all, opera is a type of art form with a lot of conventions, and often operas make more sense when you know that they fall into, or at least derive from, the categories of ‘opera buffa’ or ‘opera seria’ or ‘verismo’ or whatever. And some of the qualities attached to the category of opera seria — the sorts of motives characters have, the way emotions are expressed, the way the stories work — can as I said make it hard for a modern audience to wholly put themselves into what they are seeing and hearing.
What the ROH has done is take one heavily stylized art form – opera seria – and stage it in a way that plays with another heavily stylized art form – kabuki!
This production is vaguely Japanese I think it’s vaguely Japanese I really think so evokes kabuki without running any risk of causing anyone to think that this is a production of Mitridate that is set in Japan. The set is plain and red, with some moving walls and, in Act II a full moon and trees in the back. In Act III Farnace has his “non più di fiori” moment while perched elegantly upon a slightly stylized-looking rock. The costumes involve both panniers and armor – I never really thought about it, but enormous panniers are a great way to display armor. Everyone’s got them (except Ismene, whose costume and gestures look more Indian or Persian than Japanese). The armor looks a bit like Japanese armor, and the white makeup, swords and the style of dancing that is used in some of the bigger scenes again evoke kabuki theater, but these touches are balanced by enough other things (18th-century style white wigs, the way the Romans’ outfits look, well, Roman, the ruffly lace sleeves on one of Aspasia’s dresses) that it’s clearly a reference or a gesture rather than LET’S DO KABUKI MOZART. I think the point is to say that ‘yes, obviously this is unfamiliar – but think of it as a different way of doing drama, not a fake or an outated way of doing drama.’ We’ve all heard that quote, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – well, this is basically what gets communicated by the way they’ve staged this.
Here’s Aspasia’s first aria in Act I, which gives a sense of what it all looks like. Aspasia is Luba Orgonasova and Sifare (Ann Murray) is the one in blue.