Other Stages: The Little Opera Theatre of New York Presents a Mozart Premiere

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A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to ask James Levine a question I had been thinking about. While the Met has continued to expand its repertory of works by Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Strauss, Puccini, Janacek, Britten and contemporary composers, there has not been a new Mozart opera since 1984.

New York’s largest opera company has seven Mozart operas in its repertory: Idomeneo (1780); Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1781); Le Nozze di Figaro (1786); Don Giovanni (1787); Così fan tutte (1790); Die Zauberflöte (1791); and La Clemenza di Tito (1791).

I think the Met has done very well by Mozart through the years, with excellent casts and productions that have ranged from good to sensational. The Jean-Pierre Ponnelle staging of La Clemenza di Tito is nonpareil. Some of my most thrilling nights in the theater have come in seeing outstanding singers (particularly Tatiana Troyanos, Carol Vaness and Susan Graham) in that highly rational yet gripping production. My only regret is that, since Ponnelle’s death in 1988, his amazing blocking and movement in the powerful final scene have been lost, replaced by generically sloppy exultation.  

Franco Zeffirelli’s Don Giovanni was undervalued. It did not have his usual dogs and ponies, but was a deft evocation of 18th century theatrical styles, including the use of many members of the stage crew to move all the pieces of the set. It became too expensive to present. Marthe Keller followed Zeffirelli with a take on that opera that had some of the most psychologically insightful stage direction I have seen in a long time. The complex story was immediate and palpable, and Anja Harteros, in a great cast, was an amazing Donna Anna, clearly benefiting from Keller’s vision. Jonathan Miller’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro is fresh, vibrant and humane, and takes on new casts with little apparent effort.

Mozart wrote 22 works for the stage, most of which merit consideration (though it could be argued that the Met stage is too big for some of them). And yet, in my opinion, there is one opera that cries out for discovery by New York audiences. I was thrilled that James Levine said the name I had hoped he would: Mitridate, Re di Ponto. Written in 1770, when Mozart was just 14, this work was his first opera seria and clearly a forerunner of Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito

Put simply, an opera seria is a work usually based on stories from ancient Greece and Rome that is a drama rather than a tragedy. Because they were written during the 18th century -- the age of Enlightenment -- the plots often focused on a leader (Mitridate, Idomeneo, Tito) sung by a tenor who faces personal challenges and makes sacrifices that require wisdom and courage. Beneath him are various characters sung by castrati (now by countertenors or mezzos), sopranos and mezzos, who compete with one another in love and battle. Usually there is one bass character, an older confidant to the tenor lead. All of this may sound formulaic, and in lesser hands it was, but Mozart brought genius and sophistication to these stories.

Levine explained that it is not that easy to incorporate Mitridate into the Met repertory. As a work never done before, it would require considerably more rehearsal of singers and orchestra, which means that operas surrounding its presentation would have to be standard repertory that need less rehearsal by musical forces and less preparation by technical and stage crews. It would take time and money to find a production team to conceive of scenic and other design elements as well as an idea of how to stage it. 

Ponnelle used one beautiful, neo-classical frame for Idomeneo (set in Crete) and Tito (set in Rome), but with different details depicted with sepia drawings in the style of Piranesi. A smart, sensitive director/designer could use the same frame and style to do Mitridate. And if anyone has a problem with that, my answer is  that if one high-strung and balky 45,000 ton machine can be used for the four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle, this gracious production from 25 years ago can be deputized and adapted to present a rare Mozart opera.

A First Encounter with Mitridate

I first encountered this opera thanks to a recording from 1998 that included Giuseppe Sabbatini (a fine Roman tenor who has recently moved to conducting) and young, talented singers including Natalie Dessay, Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Floréz before they achieved worldwide fame.

In 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, I spent a fair amount of time in Salzburg. On the actual birthday (January 27), I attended the gala concert (conducted by Riccardo Muti) and did a live report on WNYC’s “Soundcheck” that included the pealing of bells at the very time of the birth of the composer. The next day I heard some young artists sing music from Mitridate and resolved to see the full opera. That summer the Salzburg Festival presented all 22 Mozart stage works, and I was asked to lecture about some of them. The Mitridate production I saw was creditable but, when so many operas are being presented in just a few weeks, it was not all it could have been.

And here is where I am again proud to be a New Yorker. I mentioned in my first blog post that I consider New York the opera capital of the world. Even in hard times, the Met and City Opera are leaders in the field. Behind them are, by my count, at least 40 small companies and organizations that present opera each year, drawing on the talents of the many musicians, teachers, designers and directors who live here. I intend to eventually spotlight all of these companies, starting with the perfectly named Little Opera Theatre of New York, which is about to present the first fully-staged production in New York of Mitridate, Re di Ponto.

LOTNY was founded in September, 2004 with a concert at The Kosciuszko Foundation. It has also done César Cui’s A Feast in the Time of the Plague (American premiere); Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart & Salieri (written well before Amadeus tackled similar ideas); Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera; Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s landmark opera, The Mother of Us All. It has also performed works of Handel, Haydn, Vivaldi, and Weill. 

Mozart Takes Italy By Storm

My particular interest in Mitridate is based on my study of Mozart in Italy. He gave his first performance, on keyboard, in the town of Rovereto near Trento, on December 24, 1769. It was there that he tasted red Marzemino wine, which became the favored libation of Don Giovanni 18 years later. Mozart then traveled to Mantua and other musical capitals before spending meaningful time in Bologna in 1770 (at age 14), where he expanded his knowledge of music theory, the voice, and the Italian aesthetic in all things. No doubt he ate well too. Bologna is where he wrote most of his opera to a libretto by Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi based on Racine’s play “Mithridate.”

He then went to Milan, already an important music center even though La Scala would not open until 1778 (with a work by Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s putative rival). His opera opened at the Teatro Regio Ducale on December 26, 1770. In Milan, an opera given the day after Christmas is considered among the most important on the annual calendar. It was a big success and had more than 20 performances, despite many people’s hesitance to attend a work by a 14-year-old Austrian boy. The opera received a few performances elsewhere but then it largely vanished until the 20th century.

The most basic plot outline is that Aspacia is betrothed to Mitridate, but also sought by two brothers, the constant Sifare and the avenging Farnace. Here are a few musical examples:


Arleen Auger sings Aspacia’s aria “Al destin, che la minaccia”

And while you're exploring, here's Vesselina Kasarova singing Farnace’s aria “Va! l’erro mio palesa," Natalie Dessay (Aspacia) and Cecilia Bartoli (Sifare) in a duet, and Giuseppe Sabbatini, in  the title role, sings the aria “Tu, che fedel mi sei."

The Little Opera Theatre of New York will present Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Ponto on May 18, 19, 21 and 22 at the JCC (Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street). There will be two casts of fine young singers conducted by Richard Cordova and directed by Philip Shneidman, who told me in an e-mail that he cannot believe music so brilliant could have been written by a 14-year-old. I agree and know you will too.  More details are available on the company's Web site.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Tiller (Sifare) and Jeffrey Mandelbaum (Farnace) in the Little Opera Theatre of New York's production of Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Ponto.