[ Erato / 3 CD Box Set ]
Release Date: Friday 29 October 2021
Mozart was just 14 years old when he composed Mitridate, re di Ponto for performance in Milan. An opera seria set in ancient times, it boasts a sequence of spectacular arias for its cast of strongly contrasting characters. At the centre of the action is Mitridate himself - the historical Mithridatus, King of Pontus, a ruler of Persian-Greek ancestry who was a formidable opponent of the Roman empire.
Mitridate is embodied on this new recording, conducted by Marc Minkowski with Les Musiciens du Louvre, by Michael Spyres. When the American tenor (or baritenor) sang the role in Paris in 2016, Opera magazine wrote: "With their vertiginous leaps and wide range, Mozart's arias present formidable technical challenges, not least for the tenor in the title role, who is pushed to extremes. Michael Spyres, a singer of exceptional agility and control, took these in his stride." A year later, he took the role at London's Royal Opera House, and this time Opera magazine praised his performance as "never less than thrilling", noting that his recitatives were "outstanding for their beauty and unforced eloquence".
This recording has its roots in Marc Minkowski's project for a Kabuki-inspired staging of the opera which was scheduled for Berlin's Staatsoper in November 2020. When the pandemic caused its cancellation, Erato stepped in and conductor and orchestra found themselves back home in France, recording in the Philharmonie de Paris. There was a certain poetic justice to this, since the opera draws on Mithridate by the great French playwright Jean Racine. The play, first performed in 1673, was a particular favourite of another formidable monarch, Louis XIV.
The change of location and the complications of life under Covid-19 also gave rise to some alterations in the cast, which became largely French - the exceptions being Spyres and the Gabonese (but Bordeaux-trained) mezzo-soprano Adriana Bignani Lesca; she sings the governor Arbate, a role originally taken by a castrato. There are three star sopranos: Sabine Devieilhe as the Parthian princess Ismene (Avant-scène Opéra, describing her 2016 performance beside Spyres in Paris, wrote that "Her charm, her virtuosity and her use of the text are balm for the ears"); Julie Fuchs as Aspasia, Mitridate's betrothed, whose interpretation of Servilia in Mozart's final opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, has been praised by Gramophone for its "exquisite shaping" and "redemptive grace", and, as Sifare, Elsa Dreisig, a dazzling Fiordiligi in the 2020 Salzburg Così fan tutte released on DVD by Erato. Like Arbate, Sifare, one of Mitridate's sons, is a role originally conceived for a castrato. The king's other son is Farnace, sung here by the French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, and the cast is completed by tenor Cyrille Dubois as the Roman legionary Marzio.
Mark Minkowski's credentials in Mozart are, of course, impeccable. He spent four years (2013-17) as artistic director of Salzburg's Mozartwoche, and his readings are as exceptional for their intensity and sense of momentum as for their scholarship and exquisite attention to detail.