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I was thinking about this production a little bit more, and there is a way in which the ending of the opera reminds me of La Clemenza di Tito, which I also listened to in its entirety yesterday afternoon because, well, why not, right? It’s never NOT a good time for Tito. In Mitridate, the dramatic widget that seems intended to tie the whole thing together is that in the beginning everyone thinks Mitridate is dead, and at the end he actually is.
In this Salzburg production, the ending is undercut. Farnace puts his blindfold back on. And the googly-eyed men in red are back at the end, and after Mitridate has expired they pull a black covering over him, only to pull it back again a little bit later. He’s not as gone as you might think. (And then there’s that line of what looks like Arabic script, which appears at the beginning and then again at the end. I do not know what it says.) Also, it’s worth noting that Mitridate arrives in Act I with a head wound which never goes away – he’s constantly bleeding a little. The wound he actually dies from looks self-inflicted, a cut on the wrist – it doesn’t look like a battle wound a la the libretto – if the entire story, including the Romans, turns out to be Mitridate’s own elaborate exit strategy, the final chorus, in which the rest of the characters gin themselves up to go fight those very same Romans, is not quite what it appears to be.
It’s this quality of the ending, that a very straightforward opera seria ending turns out to be very amenable to being undercut in such a way that you end up wondering what precisely it is that you have just witnessed, that reminded me of Clemenza. I mean, you get to the end of a good production of La Clemenza di Tito and you’re left with something between a niggling feeling that all is not quite as well as it seems and a sense that the ending of this opera is actually sort of awful for everyone concerned. The conventions of opera seria strike a modern audience as stilted, or strange – you can go with ‘stylized!’ as a way of engaging with this, or you can go with ‘that’s really rather unnerving once you start thinking about it.’
But the tone of this production of Mitridate isn’t really what you’d call creepy. The googly-eyed guys are, but the whole thing is played more as a kind of deeply painful family drama. The set feels intimate rather than massive or imposing. Towards the end of Act III, Mitridate doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to poison Aspasia and kill Farnace or whether he wants to untie his son and patch things up. And he dies not among the other characters, but in that upper section, reflected in the big mirror – lying on a big piece of wood with a crown or two nailed to it, which with the mirror makes him look as if he’s been attached to it upright. Ultimately, maybe the story is one of a series of relationships that get really painfully twisted around because of the presence of kingship (or future kingship, for one of the sons) – and in the end, there are some things that you can’t patch up or resolve. Even if you all agree to go fight the Romans.