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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mitridate, Re di Ponto (1770)
Act 1: Cavata: “Se di lauri il crine adorno” (Mitridate)
Aria Talk •
Editor's Note: OPERA America’s “Aria Talk” column emphasizes repertoire for large-voiced singers. One aria is covered in each column. The column focuses not on the tried-and-true pieces you undoubtedly already know, but on somewhat off-the-beaten-track arias. The hope is that this music will prove a refreshing musical and interpretive change not only for you, the performer, but also for those hearing you in auditions.
Mitridate, Re di Ponto isn’t an unknown work anymore. Over the past 25 years it’s been produced by many major opera companies and festivals internationally. If you enjoy Mozart but feel that Don Ottavio and even Ferrando don’t show off your extensive range to the utmost, try Mitridate, who traverses a full two octaves in the first of his five (!) arias. It was for true virtuosi that this role’s music and that of the other principals was composed by the young Mozart, who was not yet 15 when the opera premiered.
Mitridate, King of Ponthus, doesn’t make his entrance until more than halfway through Act One. When the opera opens, he’s off fighting the Romans. He’s totally unaware that his fiancée, Aspasia, and his son, Sifare, are in love (Aspasia is also loved by Mitridate’s other son, Farnace, whom she has rejected). Having been defeated in battle, the king arrives at the port of Nymphaea. Once he’s stepped off the ship with his troops, he addresses the land of Ponthus itself: “Even if I did not come home to you with my head crowned with laurel, at last I am not shamed and disgraced.” He exclaims that he remains the same person, still possessing the same great heart.
Designated a cavata (of which the more familiar cavatina is the diminutive) in the score, this ravishing andante aria requires superlative control of legato throughout. The majesty of the character and the music is clear as early as the fourth measure, where Mitridate takes a leap of a 13th, from low D to high A. There are other leaps later, reaching as widely as a 14th. Much of the melodic line moves stepwise, often in triplets (as in a glorious passage near the end, where a series of four ascending triplets touches high C). Midway in the aria, Mozart gives a marvelously delicate effect to two measures of eighth-notes by separating each note from the next with an eighth rest. A cadential trill is indicated at the end, but the cadenza preceding the repeat of the main theme is not written out, leaving you free to show your musical imagination by inserting a cadenza of your own devising. Despite the obvious technical challenges, you must project a serene regality, revealing it through posture and carriage as well as through your vocalism.
To hear the complete role: Bruce Ford (DVD, Kultur label); Richard Croft (DVD, Decca label); Gösta Winbergh (DVD); Giuseppe Sabbatini (CD, Decca label)
About the Author: Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera of Chicago, judges annually for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and regularly advises singers on choosing repertoire.