Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1987 film of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto numbers not just among my favourite operatic films but among my favourite films in any genre. It’s a scintillating, haunting bit of cinema, opera seria played out as stiflingly as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; it also contains what I consider – and surely I, of all people, should know – one of Yvonne Kenny’s finest achievements. Several times I’ve attempted to review it: technical glitches and frustration with my inability to capture my own fascination with the film have prevented me from ever doing so. Now, however, like so many of Ponnelle’s wonderful opera films, Mitridate has been released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon (my copy is a pre-loved VHS) and as such, has received a brand-new review, which one of my fabulous Perth-based guardian angel correspondents directed me to this afternoon.
Apart from the fact that it’s in French, it’s more or less the review I’ve wanted all this time to write: Benoît Berger and I are of one mind. Let me show you (though if you can you really should read the French instead of my inevitably flawed translation.)
But what is it that’s so exceptional about this Mitridate? To begin with, an aesthetic which breathes new life into the splendours of the Italian Baroque. The decor is simple, brilliantly and grandly unambiguous: Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico. No need for anything extra in this setting, the formidable atmosphere of the location does everything. There’s an imposing grandeur to it. At once palace, temple, altar, focused by the camera, scrutinized down to every last column, it’s quite simply a delight. But – Ponnelle’s master-stroke – that splendour never smacks of "over-decoration" à la Zeffirelli, an oppressive overload of images! No! Even the naïveté of the painted backdrops at the beginning works in favour of the concept, its quasi-archaeological dimension. Magnificent, I tell you.
And on Nikolaus Harnoncourt:
[He] attacks this “adolescent” (hard to believe) music head on, brutalises it, assaults it (the beginning of the final recitative, Figlio non piu), almost violates it in order to extract jewels of dramatic intensity, moments of unexpected coarseness; tawny, weathered colours. Once again, incredible! Right from the overture it’s a river of lava which sweeps us up, a searing, incandescent current, a ground-swell carrying with it all the scoria of sharp-edged but superb orchestra. In this production, the whole score passes through a filter of tremendous drama; even the introduction to the Act II Aspasia/Sifare duet oozes with tragedy, passion…even the arias given to Ismene, so pale and polite, add something!
So far, so good. And then this:
But above all this disc offers a definitive interpretation, an interpretation with a capital “I” which sends packing all Aspasias past and present and surely destroys for good the plans of all those to come. For Yvonne Kenny IS Aspasia, quite simply, and no more need be said. She inhabits the character to her very fingertips, with her powerful, dark-hued voice and that commanding yet spirited virtuosity which we’ve heard from her since her Lucio Silla and her Entführung with the same conductor. It’s at once brilliantly personal, human, fully-embodied… for me there’s really nobody but Moser (on the live recording with Hager) to whom she can be compared. Like her, she’s feminine, a woman who loves and who suffers, an impassioned tragedienne. Like her, she carries her heart within the cavities of her larynx. Like her, she knows what it is to sing with a sound imbued with physicality. Like her, in short, she is able to verge on hysteria without becoming ridiculous, balancing on the edge of an abyss of passions without ever capitulating. Glo-ri-ous!
Words such as these do my soul good. I’ve lost all credibility, I know: even if I was capable of saying things like this, who’d believe me? But if I could say anything, this (minus the Edda Moser comparisons, obviously) is what I’d say.
As is this:
But don’t listen to me. No words will ever do justice to the grandeur of this production, which is more than theatre, more than music, more than an opera, because it’s all of this at once and more besides. Grab it now. Watch, listen…even better, hear! Hear what nobody has ever made you hear in this work. Open your ears, your eyes, and most of all your heart! Love, and death as well, undiluted, fiery emotions, a tragic and compelling humanity, all of Mozart is contained within this DVD case. What are you still doing here? Go!
Precisely. This film is a masterpiece. See it.