It might seem somewhat surprising, to find an opera by Mozart among the titles that were chosen for the fourth edition of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Barocktage, a project which has been providing Berlin audiences with a yearly quota of more or less known Baroque operas. Yet it can also be argued that aesthetic definitions are often vague and that pigeonholing is a slippery matter – all the more so when talking about Mitridate, re di Ponto, Mozart’s first opera seria which he composed while touring in Italy at the age of 14. Expectably reliant on late 18th-century operatic conventions, Mitridate hardly foreshadows the zesty dramatic flair that propels some of Mozart’s later, more famous works for the stage. Yet a good production, graced on this occasion by Marc Minkowski’s conducting and a solid cast, can bring the best out of a score whose musical merits partially compensate for its theatrical shortcomings.

Pene Pati (Mitridate)
© Bernd Uhlig

At first glance, Satoshi Miyagi’s staging struck for its commanding visual impact. After a brief, ominous peek into a forlorn war scene, a bright gold multi-storey structure filled almost the entire space, making for an appropriate scene for Kayo Takahashi Deschene’s just as shiny costumes. Gold is a highly symbolic colour: it evokes opulence and luxury, but also eternity, and therefore divinity. Everything concurred to place the action outside the normal flow of time. Miyagi instructed the singers to reduce their movements to a minimum, adopting a method that – by his own admission – owes much to kabuki theatre. Every gesture thus acquired particular significance, generating a starkly unrealistic, almost stylised effect. Much like arias halt the unravelling of the plot to allow for introspection, Miyagi’s stage directions froze the singers into still frames, letting music be the dynamic force of the visually static scenes.

Angela Brower (Sifare) and Ana Maria Labin (Aspasia)
© Bernd Uhlig

While striking, however, such a clear stylistic stance might also prove hazardous. A nearly immobile staging risks exacerbating a precarious, uneven libretto. Indeed, the political backdrop of Mitridate is generic at best, the title character’s suicide standing out as the main – and only – major event after his own return from battle. In Miyagi’s hands, the conflict passes over details and assumes continental, cultural proportions, Mitridate’s Asia fighting against Marzio’s Europe. Rather than with actions, the clash is mostly rendered through costumes: samurai-like armours for the former, plain western clothes for the latter. Yet while Mozart’s opera ends on an unpacified, positively combative note, Miyagi closes his production with a warning by returning to the dismal opening scene, the golden palace fully dismantled and the stage turned into a grim battlefield.

Pene Pati (Mitridate), Sarah Aristidou (Ismene) and Adriana Bignagni Lesca (Arbate)
© Bernd Uhlig

Navigating through the sequence of tableau vivant-style scenes, Minkowski’s conducting animated Miyagi’s frames, providing them with the incessant, vibrant motion exuding from the score. This is perhaps the most typically Mozartian aspect of an opera that is otherwise quite dependent on a generic, rather than personal idiom: a musical vivacity that is to be found not just in the arias, but also in the recitatives, which – as reported in a letter to his mother – kept 14-year-old Mozart busy to the point of making his fingers hurt. 

Horn player of Les Musiciens du Louvre and dancers
© Bernd Uhlig

Minkowski took to heart the endeavours of the young composer, highlighting his maturing capacity to define situations with a few simple traits. The result was that of a surprisingly nuanced rendition which averted the concrete danger of monotony. Paying attention to every detail, the French conductor led an airtight performance that was never short of energy. Despite its limited size, Les Musiciens du Louvre soared just as easily, all the while serving its function as reliable support for the singers.

If there is one charge that cannot be brought against Mozart, it is that of not making his title character’s entrance memorable enough. Mitridate’s formidable cavatina draws the indelible sketch of a man who is destined to be defeated yet preserves its tragic pride. From his first appearance on stage, Pene Pati embodied this duality with uncommon versatility. His malleable tenor rose and dropped between registers, putting agility and range to great use in the portrayal of the moody sovereign. While often maintaining a combative and unyielding demeanour, Pati also proved capable of softening his singing into a wistful murmur. 

Ana Maria Labin (Aspasia)
© Bernd Uhlig

Ana Maria Labin’s Aspasia also asserted her authority and prestige through impeccable coloratura. Her status as a queen never subsided, but rather overlapped with her position as a woman in love. To be sure, Labin’s firm technique and full-bodied voice were a perfect match for the character. And much the same can be said about Angela Brower, who sang a passionate Sifare with her rich-toned mezzo and captivating stage presence, and Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, whose sensible phrasing fittingly traced Farnace’s development throughout the opera.