The first thing everyone will tell you about Mitridate, Re di Ponto is that Mozart wrote it when he was just 14. The second is that it’s not very good. While the former is unassailable fact, the latter is definitely up for debate. Once you accept that this opera seria – the convention-heavy, 18th-century style of opera that’s all brocade and panniers to Figaro’s slinky, skin-tight modernity – is an altogether more formal affair, less dramatically manoeuvrable than what came next, it frees you up to enjoy the music, which is as wild as any teenage boy’s fantasies.
The plot, set in the classical world, pits King Mitridate against the might of the Romans. As they advance closer to his kingdom, the king is distracted by conflict within his own family. His sons Farnace and Sifare have both fallen for Mitridate’s fiancée Aspasia, with foreign princess Ismene (in love with a dismissive Farnace) turning a love-square into a pentagon.
Accompanying a new production for Garsington, conductor Clemens Schuldt and period band The English Concert coax tremendous energy, colour and heart from a score whose vocal writing is all absurd feats and extremity, grounding even the silliest excesses in something sincere.
Yet director Tim Albery’s staging is a perplexing affair. The action is enclosed throughout in a wooden cabin (Children’s treehouse? Campaign hut?) strewn initially with the schoolroom detritus of toy soldiers, a globe and (for no obvious reason) a life-size model zebra. Are we watching small boys “playing” at soldiers for real? Is this Albery’s homage to a child’s vision of love and war? Business suits jostle with 19th-century dresses and 20th-century military greatcoats. Baddie Farnace (Iestyn Davies, chewing the scenery) swigs whisky while lounging around in purple silk, having a lot more fun than the good guys around him.
Vocally it’s a strong showing. Tenor Robert Murray gives us plenty of baritonal warmth in the demanding title role, translating this man-child’s insecurity into vast neurotic leaps and mercurial shifts of mood. Elizabeth Watts is an immaculate Aspasia, stopping time in Act III’s ravishing “Pallid’ ombre”, her richer tones a foil to Soraya Mafi’s silvery clarity and Swarovski coloratura as Ismene. Louise Kemeny and Davies battle it out stylishly as the warring brothers. If Farnace’s sudden conversation from traitor to patriot makes for an awkward conclusion, musically it’s every bit a happy ending for a score that’s the ambitious, if erratic, older sibling to Figaro and more.
To 2 July (garsingtonopera.org)