Mitridate, re di Pontus, earns his (zebra) stripes, Garsington Opera


Sometimes it is a bore being an opera-loving academic classicist. On one hand it can be very helpful knowing the classical and mythological tales that so many operas are based on. On the other, however, directors and their designers can really get your purist heckles up.

However, when this Mitridate, Re di Ponto opens with a stuffed zebra on stage alongside the (shock horror) globe of the modern world, you know any historical realism in Tim Albery’s production needs to be abandoned. Perhaps Mitridate planned to cross from Asia to Europe on his striped Afriquan equine, taking a leaf out of Hannibal’s elephant trek across the Alps. Perhaps this was his way of saying, hey, this is really a timeless piece.

Fortunately, the point of the very young Mozart’s opera is not really the story and certainly not what a modern director and designer would do visually with the opera seria tale to keep modern audiences (and themselves) happy.

While the story centres on King Mitridate who foolishly believes that, Canute-like, he can hold back the tide of the Roman war machine, and the contrasting behaviour of his sons when faced with the (suspected) death of their father by those Romans. The sons Farnace and Sifare are after the affections of Mitridate’s fiancée Aspasia although the Parthian princess Ismene is already supposedly betrothed to one of them, the very naughty Farnace. In fact, while the seemingly loyal Sifare has his father’s affections and the duplicitous Farnace gets locked up, both are quick to make moves on their father’s intended. All is fair in love and war – until dad pops back up.

Iestyn Davies and Soraya Mafi in Mitridate, re di Ponto at Garsington. Photo: Julian Guidera

Iestyn Davies and Soraya Mafi. Image: Julian Guidera

Iestyn Davies. Image: Julian Guidera

Conductor Clemens Schuldt and The English Concert cope admirably, with the demands of the young genius’ score and maintains balance with the singers, in what could really have been a semi-staged concert performance.

Robert Murray. Image: Craig Fuller

The set from Hannah Clark is a basic staging, something like a large wooden palisade wall, black garden sheds on either side, that stuffed zebra that Mitridate of course has to ride as battle nears, a sumptuous sofa on which Farnace lounges and drinks whisky, after having played with his toy soldiers.

It is the singing that gets our attention on stage and tenor Robert Murray in the title role is a baritone of great dexterity with Mozart’s vocal writing, veering near manically between vengeful warrior to heartbroken father and lover.

Elizabeth Watts and Louise Kemény. Image: Julian Guidera

The always accomplished soprano Elizabeth Watts here gives a measured Aspasia, no need for histrionic acting as she gives noble yet heartfelt and ravishing singing throughout. While dressed in a god-awful costume and wig, Soraya Mafi rose above (and delved down below) with an Ismene, whose insanely demanding coloratura was as mad as her forgiving of her dismissive intended Iestyn Davies. The deliciously naughty performance by the rather louche purple wearing countertenor was in perfect contrast to the more noble Sifare sung with elegance by soprano Louise Kemény.

Joshua Owen Mills and Iestyn Davies. Image: Julian Guidera

We also have the Roman officer Marzio suavely sung by the rising young Welsh tenor Joshua Owen Mills and a pained Arbate from John Graham Hall.

Until July 2.

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