Being a lover of pre-Romantic Opera & all things Baroque, this release of "Mitridate" is manna in the desert for me. The sheer commitment of all involved in this production is enough to convince anyone of Mozart's (and pre-Romantic opera's) possibilities to create a dramatic (& entertaining) work of art.
Expect regal singing from all involved, especially Bruce Ford. He makes Mitridate's music sound as easy as breathing - this stratospheric part (top C following top C) is really the Turandot for (lyric) tenors. Jochen Kowalski puts his honey-like, finely honed counter-tenor to good use as the scheming brother, Farnace. Ann Murray is Ann Murray. Her voice, compared to her earlier excursion of the same part under Harnoncourt, has lost some of its beauty in the upper reaches, yet hers still remain a telling account of Sifare's music. Luba Orgonasova has a few misses as Aspasia, but is still wonderful - I prefer Yvonne Kenny; Arleen Auger; Natalie Dessay in this part. Lillian Watson as Ismene is a treat - even though she sometimes display "harsh" sounds in the upper register. The dramatisation of her first aria is magic (and difficult - she does some fine bangra dancing amidst the torrents of coloratura). The first entrance of Mitridate & his Samurai retinue; the Act one finale & Mitridate's second Act entrance are other moments to look out for. These are only a few of many remarkable moments.
The music will speak for itself. There are admittedly a few weaknesses in the score: much of the music is in a major key, and a fast tempo. This has more to do with the tastes of the time, than the young Mozart. He was expected to write flashy and entertaining music for his singers to show off their talents. In the original production Mozart had three castrati at his disposal. That explains why Sifare and Arbate are sopranos & Farnace an alto. Tenors, baritones and basses are reserved for older characters. For the 18th century audience, youth and virility could only manifest itself as sopranos in the bodies of castrati or female sopranos. Sexual ambiguity is one of the main characteristics of 18th century operas & this fascination is highligthed by the casting of the stunning counter-tenor Jochen Kowalski as Farnace.
Like Handel Mozart managed to strech the conventions, without breaking them. Sifare's farewell, "Lungi da te" - is heart-breaking and equal to any of Mozart's later music - finds Ann Murray unbeatable. Aspasia's extended scena when contemplating suicide is something which side steps "Don Giovanni" straight to Cherubini's "Medea". "Ombre pallide" and "Lungi da te", with its plungent and athletic horn solo must, have shocked the first audience. There are no real ensembles, except for the final (brief) quintett. The (only) duet is sensual and effectively conveys the sadness/unwillingness at the lovers' parting. This duet exists in two ravishing versions. The first one is my favourite, but the second one, which is now commonly used, is of no mean order either. For more mature opere serie from this composer, we will have to wait for "Lucia Silla", "Idomeneo" and "Tito".
The costumes are wonderful & opulent - an intelligent mix of 18th century fashion, mixed with oriental (Japanese) influences. This video makes a very valid case for any Mozart (early) opera. What we need are more singers/conductors/stage designers & directors like those who participated in the creation of this production. They make no excuse for the opera, or its conventions. They allow the music and drama to speak for themselves, without trying to be clever and super imposing their own ideas on the music. Whether you buy this staging or the Ponselle, you will be in for a treat. You may want to know that there are fewer cuts in the Covent Garden version, than the Ponselle & that Ponselle ineffectively uses a boy soprano (!) for Arbate.
This DVD is presented over two discs, when one would have been sufficient! Also, you cannot skip from aria to aria, but only from Act to Act, which I find insane.
But otherwise this DVD is highly recommendable, and very entertaining if you love 18th century music and theatre.