Mitridate, re di Ponto was Mozart’s fifth opera, written and first produced when he was 14 years old. Absolutely amazing. Now we’ve got that out of the way, what about the work? Is it worth reviving, and if so how? The Royal Opera evidently thinks so, since it is reviving for the second time Graham Vick’s production from 1991. There are, of course, several Graham Vicks, the magnificent one who founded Birmingham Opera Company and has adventurously staged many extraordinary productions, in line with his view that opera needs to change radically if it is to survive, and not be a mere plaything for the idle rich; the one, somewhat at odds with that, who put on controversial, even deliberately disgusting productions of the great Mozart operas at Glyndebourne; and the one whose staging of Mitridate is most notable for its lavishness — the cost of the costumes alone would be enough to run a provincial opera house for a year. If you put on a work as intrinsically uninteresting (and lengthy) as Mitridate you have to do something to ward off tedium, so maybe the only solution is to have the characters all dressed as galleons, sailing in with hooped dresses about four yards wide, with armour on top, and regardless of sex. What with the costumes and the number of women and a countertenor taking male roles, the production must have seemed premonitory when first staged, though now seems merely trendy. The sets are not so elaborate, but the vividness of the colours and lighting are very attractive.
Mitridate is an opera seria, a term which means that not only does it obey strict formal roles, but also deals earnestly with matters of the state and heart. The plot is moderately tortuous, with two brothers and their father all in love with the same woman. Vick directs a stylised production, in which oriental and baroque gesturing replaces anything recognisable as human behaviour. Opera seria, where nothing is natural or humanly interesting, seems to me the low point in a chequered art form. It is mere display, with Mozart’s rich understanding of human beings, nascent as it was, apparent only in a couple of arias — oh, and the opera is recitative and aria, with one duet at the end of Act Two and an ensemble at the end of Act Three. It was received with rapture, wholly deserved by the singers pretending to belong to an unknown species. All seven soloists were on the highest level, gamely camping it up so that, though they were singing about despair and rejection, they behaved in a way guaranteed to cause tittering. Bejun Mehta, a veteran in the part of Farnace, Mitridate’s elder son, was striking, but so was Michael Spyres in the title role, and Lucy Crowe (Ismene) seemed to enjoy her mad flights of coloratura while doing all she could to dislocate her neck.
For their end-of-season opera performances the Royal College of Music staged a double bill of mischievous French operettas, the first Une éducation manquée by Chabrier. This flat 40-minute piece sadly confirmed my slowly growing conviction that all three of Chabrier’s sophisticated comedies, such as only the French, of course, can produce, are neglected because they are failures. It is about a young married couple who haven’t been instructed in the facts of life, and only do what comes naturally when brought together by a thunderstorm. It didn’t help that the copious spoken dialogue was in English, the sung music in French. But the level of musical invention is low, non-specific and certainly not hinting at nascent eroticism.
What an astounding lift we got after the interval with Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias, an hour-long romp of continuous, brilliant invention by my favourite 20th-century French composer. Hilarious from the word go, and doing what surrealism does best — sending conventions sky-high and keeping them there. The text is adapted by the composer from a play by Apollinaire, originally written in 1903. By the time Poulenc started working on it in 1940, France was occupied, so a subversive farce was just what was needed. It strikes a contemporary note too, with characters deciding at will which gender they are, the male lead producing, single-handed, 40,049 children in a single day. This is beginning to sound tiresome, but thanks to the brilliance, and occasional darkness, of the score and the immense vitality of Stephen Unwin’s production it is boundlessly enjoyable. A rich patron of the arts should have it videoed and widely distributed. It is absurd that a production and performance of this standard should disappear after four performances. Michael Rosewell conducted the demanding score with all the panache it needs, and the singing and acting was on a level one hopes for, but often in vain, at an international festival. Please, RCM, at least revive it as soon as possible.