It must have been nice to go to the Salzburg Festival in 2006. Think of what you could have seen – the Guth Nozze di Figaro, that Idomeneo with Anja Harteros as Elettra and then also this, which contains Richard Croft, Miah Persson, Bejun Mehta AND an avalanche of coffee grounds reflected in a giant mirror.
Mitridate is perhaps not Mozart’s most exciting opera. I have seen only one other version of it, and in that instance the folks at the ROH decided to take the fact that the thing is a bit stilted and run with it, which worked up to a point. This Salzburg production by Günter Krämer is very different.
It begins and ends with eyes. The first thing you see during the overture is a series of figures in red velvet coats and white trousers and wigs. The stage is divided into two areas, a lower space where most of the interactions among the characters take place, and a second area up above which is reflected in a mirror in such a way that anyone lying on the floor of this upper balcony area appears to be hanging in the air above the stage. The men in the red coats leap up into visibility in this upper area. They’ve got enormous unblinking googly eyes on – the effect is intended to be, and is, a little unnerving. There’s a whole row of them, and they strike a series of poses, before lying down in the coffee grounds on the floor and sliding away – they’re back later, though, dancing and play-fighting, just as the main characters (minus Mitridate) do on the lower part stage during the overture. When the story proper begins all the young characters suddenly pull themselves together and the panels that mark off the rear of the lower part of the stage turn to reveal the phrase “Mitridate is dead,” which is what everyone believes is the case at the beginning of the opera, and actually is true by the end.
The theme of eyes and seeing comes up at several other points – during “questo è l’amore, Farnace,” in Act I, in the course of which Farnace tells Ismene he no longer loves her, he mimes a pair of glasses over her eyes; Mitridate shows up wearing red sunglasses that render his eyes invisible; when Mitridate has his “EVERYONE WILL BE EXECUTED” moment later on, Sifare, Farnace and Aspasia are all blindfolded, and of course Farnace is still wearing the blindfold for most of “già dagli occhi il velo è tolto” in Act III. His father takes it off, but Farnace covers his eyes with his hand for a while longer – and at the very end, he puts the blindfold on again. And just before that, Farnace is not exactly tricked, but maneuvered into his change of heart – he is blindfolded, so he doesn’t see that the Roman who is telling him that the plot against his father has Rome’s support has a knife to his throat and is reading from a script provided by Mitridate. Farnace is sincere in his repentance, but he doesn’t know that the Really Bad Thing he almost agreed to was actually a sham. (Bejun Mehta, it should be added, makes all eleven or so minutes of that aria exciting – it’s long, but it feels like the right amount of time for Farnace to work through what he needs to work through. And Marc Minkowski really brings out this tense repeat of one note in the violin parts – I think it’s at one of the transition points to or from the middle section of the aria – that sounds a bit like a smoke alarm but somehow also makes a great deal of sense.)
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