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Opera Essentials: Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto

Everything you need to know about this vibrant work, written when the composer was just 14 years old.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

16 June 2017 at 11.48am | Comment on this article

The story begins…

Defeated by the Romans in battle, King Mitridate returns home to his fiancée, Aspasia. But he soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict with his treacherous older son, Farnace, who wants Aspasia himself. Meanwhile, Mitridate’s younger son Sifare and Aspasia have fallen in love. Will Mitridate renounce his bride, or punish both his sons?

A remarkable teenage achievement

Mozart was just 14 when he began work on Mitridate, re di Ponto, to a commission from the Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan. Mozart tailored each of the opera’s roles precisely to the singer performing, and provided the full, complex orchestral textures that the Milanese favoured. Mitridate began rehearsals on 5 or 6 December 1770. The premiere was on 26 December, with the young composer conducting. Although the opera was successful and ran for 22 performances, it then disappeared from the repertory for two centuries.

From French drama to Italian opera seria

Mitridate, re di Ponto has a libretto (by Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi) loosely based on the French dramatist Racine’s acclaimed 17th century play Mithridate, in turn based very loosely on the real-life story of the despotic king Mithridates VI of Pontus. The subject was popular with 18th-century opera composers. Mozart’s opera, even more than Racine’s play, deviates considerably from historical fact, in order to accommodate the love triangles and themes of honour and ambition expected in opera seria.

A singers’ opera

Mitridate follows traditional opera seria practices in having the drama’s action conducted through recitatives, while the characters express their emotion in arias; there are only two ensembles. The arias range from virtuosic displays such as Sifare’s ‘Soffre il mio cor’ to more reflective, soul-searching numbers such as Aspasia’s ‘Nel sen mi palpita dolente il cor’.

An exotic spectacle

Graham Vick’s production pays tribute to the spectacle of 18th-century opera (and Mozart’s own fascination with fashion), with elaborate crinolined richly-coloured costumes, decorated in sumptuous embroidery. The acting style is influenced both by Baroque gesture and oriental theatre.

Mitridate, re di Ponto runs 26 June–7 July 2017. Tickets are still available.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hélène and Jean Peters.

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