IAN PAGE, 2013
Miah Persson (Aspasia), Klara Ek (Ismene), Sophie Bevan (Sifare), Lawrence Zazzo (Farnace), Barry Banks (Mitridate), Robert Murray (Marzio), The Orchestra of Classical Opera, Ian Page

The shining feature of Ian Page’s studio recording is the polished and warm sound of his period-instrument Orchestra of Classical Opera. His tempi are vivid, the orchestral sound is ideally balanced and the playing is consistently adept.  Although there is no lack of animation here, it all seems related rather to purely musical purposes than to any sense of theatre. In comparison to Marc Minkowski’s or Christophe Rousset’s performances (SEE BELOW), this sounds like exquisite and uplifting divertimento rather than the musical depiction of passion, betrayal, jealousy, regret and forgiveness . It is curious that the cast here gathered does not want intensity, but these singers could have learned some technical finish from the instrumentalists playing just behind them. Miah Persson does have extremely fluent coloratura, but her promotion from Sifare to Aspasia sounds overambitious: she is uncomfortable in both ends of her range (and Mozart really put them to use here), her high register sounds strained and, even if she is engaged and faithful to the text, there is more diligence than pathos here. Sophie Bevan too dispatches her fioriture commendably and is stylish and expressive, but the tonal quality is not very distinctive, the low register is as good as nonexistent and the high notes are often impurely produced. In this company, the lovely-toned Klara Ek cannot help but stealing the show with her bell-like high notes and superior sense of line. Lawrence Zazzo’s countertenor has seen fresher-toned days, but his experience with the role of Farnace helps him out in the end of the day. He sings with admirable commitment and energy and does some very naughty incursions in chest register for effect. As recorded here, Barry Banks’s tenor is fluttery and glaring in an almost caprine way. Even if he does not seem fazed by Mitridate’s infamous large intervals, the white-heat approach only makes his voice sound more metallic and quavery. This was not my impression when I heard him sing this role live in Munich. Maybe he waited too long before he recorded this role. This release includes a fourth CD in which one can find all the extant original versions of numbers (some of them completed by Stanley Sadie) later replaced to satisfy the creators of these role back in Milan in 1770. It is fascinating to discover how the vanities of the cast in the première compelled Mozart to outdo himself and compose unquestionably superior versions of every one of these arias (and, especially, of the Aspasia/Sifare duet).

Netta Or (Aspasia), Ingela Bohlin (Ismene), Miah Persson (Sifare), Bejun Mehta (Farnace), Richard Croft (Mitridate), Colin Lee (Marzio), Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski

Considering the freakish stagings offered in the Salzburg Mozart 250th Anniversary Festival, Günter Krämer’s production of Mitridate could be worse. As it is, he seems at least to have read the libretto and, if he entirely misunderstood it, this is probably a mistake in eligendo. Whenever a director opts for the principle of applying psychology to opera seria, the misfiring is always colossal. So it is here. It is particularly perverse that the edition here adopted was not made entirely in order to fit the duration to modern audience’s patience; it also involved adapting the plot to the director’s imagination. It is true that Ismene is the less passive character in the plot, but shifting her to the pivotal role in the story and keeping her on stage from second one to the final curtain cannot help being abusive. However, the most detestable feature of this production is making all these characters behave like children (because this would be the only “psychologically acceptable” explanation for their behaviour). That said, unlike almost all other productions from the Mozart 22 series, this one does not offend the eyes and often has visually catchy ideas, such as the elegant use of the colours red and black and the inclined mirror above the stage (no novelty, truth be said). It is particularly sad that Marc Minkowski is the co-author of the so-called Salzburg edition, involving the deletion of many numbers and recitatives and even the alteration of the structure of acts themselves: it is difficult to understand why a conductor who understands this music so completely would allow these aberrant editorial choices… All in all, Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre still offer the most exciting and theatrical account of this music. Although his tempi are more or less similar to Rousset’s (curiously the latter offers Ismene far faster tempi), Minkowski finds more variety in his phrasing and his mastery in accent, rhythms and orchestral effects produce a far more theatrical atmosphere. He also allows his singers more leeway in the arie d’affetto. Netta Or’s soprano has a grainy, nasal quality not entirely pleasant to the ears, but that is all to fault in her performance as Aspasia. Other than this, her voice is rich over a wide range, she has very clean coloratura and sings with involvement and sense of style. She is curiously partnered by the silvery Swedish soprano Miah Persson in the primo uomo role. Hers is on paper the voice of an Ismene, but she compensates that by impressive technical fluency (including perfect trills) and richness of characterisation. Although her voice has not an ounce of androgyny, the incisiveness of her phrasing and her animation end on producing a certain boyishness. In any case, she was clearly the audience’s favourite – and if you sample her Lungi da te, you will understand why. Having to play the main schemer in a Channel tailleur clinging to her unfaithful man as if her life depended on it, Ingela Bohlin still finds the peace of mind to sing Ismene’s aria in her straight-toned yet strain-free soprano. Bejun Mehta’s dark countertenor works beautifully for Farnace – he sings with energy and imagination, but some of his decoration sounds a bit ungainly. Last but not least, Richard Croft is an interesting Mitridate. His voice is a bit light for the role, but he sings with unfailing technique and stylishness. He also finds a certain vulnerability in his role that makes his final soul-searching more believable.

Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Aspasia), Lisa Larsson (Ismene), Maria Fontosh (Sifare), Kristina Hammarström (Farnace), Mathias Zachariassen (Mitridate), Anders J. Dahlin (Marzio), Vocal Group Ars Nova, Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Adam Fischer

If one prefers to hear Mitridate in a modern recording with traditional instruments, then one cannot go wrong with Adam Fischer’s stylish performance, one of the best in his series with the wonderful Danish Radio Sinfonietta. In any case, this is probably the safest choice in the discography – the proceedings may lack the flamboyance of Rousset’s recording, but are definitely more animated than Harnoncourt’s and more flexible than Norrington’s. The editorial choices, involving the inclusion of trumpets and drum to the overture and a lacklustre part for French horn in the cadenza to Lungi da te,  may seem bold, but they tend not to call attention to themselves. Henriette Bonde-Hansen is a very good Aspasia, the creaminess of her soprano unchallenged by the formidable demands made on her. Lisa Larsson’s less glamourous tone fits the more energetic approach to Ismene – and she dispatches her divisions to the manner born. The contralto tessitura seems to have a positive effect on Katarina Hammarström: she is far more dramatically connected here than she was in Fischer’s Lucio Silla and Idomeneo, not to mention her registers are expertly knit to each other. Matthias Zachariassen has all the basic elements of a Mitridate. Only some awkwardness in the the role’s fearsome intervals stand between him and success. It is a pity that Maria Fontosh is not at ease in the key role of Sifare – the edge in her voice could add to help create the aural image of a soprano castrato, but it ends on making violence to Mozartian poise and prevent her from producing 100% clean fioriture.

Francine van der Heyden (Aspasia), Johannette Zomer (Ismene), Marijje van Stralen (Sifare), Cécile van de Sant (Farance), Marcel Reijans (Mitridate), Alexei Grigorev (Marzio), Musica ad Rhenum, Jed Wentz

Jed Wentz’s recording is freshly and animatedly conducted and his orchestra plays with real gusto. This could be a commendable performance if there was not serious pieces of miscasting going on here. To start with, Francine van der Heyden has the wrong voice for Aspasia – it is not particularly lovely and her fioriture is not flashing as it should. This is after all a prima donna role and needs more charisma. Marijje van Stralen’s oratorio soprano-like Sifare is even more puzzling – she sounds rather like an Aspasia on valium! On the other hand, Marcel Reijans is a light efficient Mitridate and Johannette Zommer’s Ismene is lovely. The only outstanding performance here is, however, Cécile van de Sant, whose voice is impressively suited to the role of Farnace and the absence of register break in such tessitura is truly commendable.

Natalie Dessay (Aspasia), Sandrine Piau (Ismene), Cecilia Bartoli (Sifare), Brian Azawa (Farnace), Giuseppe Sabbatini (Mitridate), Juan Diego Florez (Marzio), Les Talents Lyriques, Cristophe Rousset

Cristophe Rousset’s studio recording in period instruments is a most satisfying performance, more energetic than Harnoncourt’s, turning a work reputed as static into a compelling dramatic piece. The faster tempi also help to focus the structure of the arias, especially those with florid writing. The role of Aspasia is a bit heavy for Natalie Dessay and this may explain why she is not as pure-toned as she usually is. Still, she has astonishing coloratura, top notes and pianissimi and is dramatically engaged. A beautiful performance. Sandrine Piau is very charming as Ismene and, although her tone is not as rich as Ileana Cotrubas’s, for example, she compensates it by her naturalness and technical fluency in the very fast tempi chosen by the conductor. In the role of Sifare, Cecilia Bartoli remains a sensitive performer and her coloratura is impressive most of the time, but I am afraid her urge to sound profoundly intense makes her already rattling mezzo sound frankly bizarre. The stage productions had Barbara Frittoli and I believe I would have preferred that. Rousset’s idea of casting the part of Farnace with a countertenor is entirely successful, once female altos generally have a bad time dealing with the passaggio so consistently as Mozart demands. Here in the most comfortable part of his voice, Brian Azawa sings beautifully and, even if he does not suggest the rebel without a cause Farnace actually is. He could have better Italian, though. I understand that Giuseppe Sabbatini has sung Mozart before this recording, but even if he avoids some “Italian tenor” mannerisms, the fact is that he is dying to sing Donizetti most of the time. He has the technique and the voice to deal with what Mozart asked of him, but I do not know if the results are entirely stylish. In the small part of Marzio, Juan Diego Florez sings edgily. The edition is complete.

Cyndia Sieden (Aspasia), Heidi Grant Murphy (Ismene), Christiane Oelze (Sifare), Vesselina Kasarova (Farnace), Bruce Ford (Mitridate), Toby Spence (Marzio), Camerata Salzburg, Roger Norrington

Those who find Christophe Rousset’s recording too agitated and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s too fussy might enjoy Roger Norrington’s sensible tempi. I miss Rousset’s more boldly delineated emotional atmosphere and variety, especially in the lyric moments, when the English conductor is a bit insensitive – but am not indifferent to the unobtrusiveness of this live performance from Salzburg, recorded in natural hall acoustics. One must mention that minor cuts have been made both in recitatives and numbers (and also inside numbers). In the role of Aspasia, Cyndia Sieden’s glittery soprano copes well with the coloratura demands made on her, but her top register is a bit edgy. In spite of the lightness of her voice, she is well contrasted to her Ismene, the rounder-toned Heidi Grant Murphy, in the best performance of her life, dispatching her divisions with aplomb and charm. Although Christiane Oelze here takes the high castrato role, she is the most feminine and vulnerable soprano in the cast and, if she does not sound more lovely in her aria d’affetto, I would blame Norrington’s disciplinarian tempo. Both she and Sieden give an outstandingly precise account of their duetto to deserved ovation. The casting of Vesselina Kasarova as Farnace grants the role a more positive profile than usual, given the Bulgarian soprano prima donna quality, taking every opportunity to add zest to a role that sits in an uncongenial area of the female voice. As much as in Covent Garden, Bruce Ford sings generously and expressively in the title role, although the large intervals were more smoothly taken back in London. Finally, Toby Spence is a pleasant Marzio.

Luba Orgonasová (Aspasia), Lilian Watson (Ismene), Ann Murray (Sifare), Jochen Kowalski (Farnace), Bruce Ford (Mitridate), Justin Lavender (Marzio), The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Paul Daniel

It was a clever idea of director Graham Vick to find in the similarly formal Japanese theatre inspiration to shed a new light in opera seria. And this production will look refreshing compared to some German stagings recently transferred to DVD, but it does have more than a splash of bad taste in its plethora of basic colours. Although the Covent Garden orchestra does not offer the last word in Mozartian refinement, conductor Paul Daniel goes straight to the matter and produces a stylish and animated performance. If you insist in modern instruments, this is probably your choice on video. Luba Orgonasová has the perfect kind of soprano for the part of Aspasia. She sings beautifully and knowingly throughout, if with little affection. Ann Murray was fresher-toned in Harnouncort’s film, but these years have made her even more eloquent. This is certainly one of her best roles. She is also the singer most attuned to the director’s stage concept. The always reliable Lillian Watson eschews all soubrettishness and has a unusually high-profile approach to Ismene. Jochen Kowalski seems to be here the counter-tenor version of Leonie Rysanek – the voice has this smoky sensuous sound and he sings and acts with an intensity that threatens note values and pitch, and still one cannot resist his performance nonetheless. As Mitridate, Bruce Ford is splendidly heroic without ever forcing Mozartian values. I cannot tell if it is a dramatic point that the only Roman on stage is made to look so quaint. In any case, Justin Lavander is not entirely at ease with his martial florid aria.

Yvonne Kenny (Aspasia), Patricia Rosario (Ismene), Ashley Putnam (Sifare), Brenda Boozer (Farnace), Rockwell Blake (Mitridate), Christian Papis (Marzio), Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Theodor Guschlbauer

Released in poor image quality and recorded sound, Theodor Guschlbauer is ultimately a footnote in the discography because nothing exceptional takes place here: the production is rather kitsch and features overacting from all involved, the orchestra is rather hardworking than truly satisfying and the conductor is kapellmeisterlich at best. 1986 must have been a hard year for Yvonne Kenny, for she sounds ill-at-ease with a role she seemed comfortable with a year before with Harnoncourt. Although the voice is appealing as usual, her top register is downright strained and the coloratura less accurate than usual. As Sifare, Ashley Putnam is easily the best in the cast – her creamy lyric soprano is not 100% flexible as the role requires, but she can caress a line in the great manner whenever she has the opportunity. The same cannot said of Patricia Rosario, woefully miscast in a role too high and too florid for her voice. Brenda Boozer is a non-Mozartian Farnace and Rockwell Blake does not produce one pleasant note in an unsubtle and effortful performance.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1985 (the film made in 1986)
Yvonne Kenny (Aspasia), Joan Rodgers (Ismene), Ann Murray (Sifare), Anne Gjevang (Farnace), Gösta Winbergh (Mitridate), Peter Straka (Marzio), Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s video is available as a soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s video, a movie shot in the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza adapted from a stage production. It is commendable that the director tried to revive the highly stylized aesthetics of baroque theatre, but the truth is that the whole production shows its age: the lighting is amateurish, the sound effects (steps and objects being thrown to the floor mainly) are annoying and some camera angles are ultimately ludicrous (try Aspasia’s Nel grave tormento). Morover, the part of Arbate, governor of Nymphaea, not only was practically deleted from the score, but is also given to a boy (!). Other than that, considering this is a studio recording, there could have been less cuts too. In the end, Harnoncourt’s surprisingly unexciting and austere approach would probably make it longer than it does feel. The warm-toned Yvonne Kenny finds the role of Aspasia a bit high and her top register is usually tense and hard. That said, no other soprano in the discography displays her mastery in classical operatic Italian declamation as she does. It is not a matter of simple idiomatic quality, but of balancing the weight of words and the tonal quality as beautifully as she does here. She is more than matched by the admirable Ann Murray, who offers the definitive account of the role of Sifare. She is at her creamiest-toned and most flexible and projects the bold, passionate nature of her character to perfection. With her light but round soprano, Joan Rodgers is a charming Ismene. Gösta Winbergh is an inspired Mitridate. In the discography, tenors tend to be either wanting or exceeding in this role, but Winbergh’s tenor is tailor-made for Mitridate. Although he has the necessary heft for this difficult part, the dulcet quality of his voice plus his ability to float mezza voce help him in many a tricky passage. Only Anne Gjevang seems out of her element here. Her contralto is too plummy for a trousers role and her lack of familiarity with Mozartian style is evident in the lack of clarity of her phrasing.

Arleen Augér (Aspasia), Ileana Cotrubas (Ismene), Edita Gruberová (Sifare), Agnes Baltsa (Farnace), Werner Hollweg (Mitridate), David Kuebler (Marzio), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg,  Leopold Hager

Although Leopold Hager’s studio recordings of early Mozart operas are not famous for their animation, Mitridate has the dubious honour of being the less compelling release in the Salzburg Mozarteum series. The prevailing lack of forward movement and the well-behaved singing make this best of early stage works by Mozart overlong and uninteresting. The part of Aspasia is on the heavy side for Arleen Augér. It is true that this has never prevented this singer from having stunning results (such as in Karl Böhm’s Entführung aus dem Serail), but here she sounds basically unplugged. Her ease with difficult fioriture is, of course, remarkable as usual. The casting of Edita Gruberová in the soprano castrato role of Sifare makes it still more confusing: there is no doubt about Gruberová’s proficiency in opera seria, but hers is a prima donna, not a primo uomo voice. Properly cast as Ismene, Ileana Cotrubas takes advantage of the slower tempi granted by the conductor to produce creamy legato. Farnace is a contralto role, but the fact that Agnes Baltsa is a mezzo does not seem to stand between her and clean stylish phrasing. The results are quite tame though – and that is a quality one would not associate to a role such as Farnace. Werner Hollweg is untroubled by the impossible writing of the title role, but he is also at his most nasal here. The edition here adopted is complete.

Edda Moser (Aspasia), Pilar Lorengar (Ismene), Arléen Auger (Sifare), Helen Watts (Farnace), Peter Schreier (Mitridate), Peter Baillie (Marzio), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager