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Mitridate, re di Ponto K.87
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Text by: Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi

First Performance: Teatro Regio Ducale, Milan, Italy (26/12/1770)


1. Manuscript: F-Pn, Ms. 244. sketches for nr. 9; facsimile in NMA X/30/3

2. Manuscript copy: P-La, 45/III/22 – 24. score copy produced at Milan, Teatro Regio Ducal, 1771

3. Edition: AMA V/5. First edition

4. Modern edition: NMA II/5/4. The aria “Vado incontro al fato estremo” nr. 19 published in NMA II/5/4 as by Mozart is in fact a setting of the same text by Quirino Gasparini from 1767

Scoring: Mitridate (tenor), Aspasia (soprano), Sifare (soprano), Farnace (contralto), Ismene (soprano), Marzio (tenor), Arbate (soprano), 4 S, A, 2 T, 2 fl, 2 ob, 2 bn, 4 hn, str

Letters in which this work is cited | Go to the Digital Mozart Edition Opens in a new window
165 (13 March 1770) | view
170 (24 March 1770) | view
177 (21 April 1770) | view
188 (29 May 1770) | view
194 (30 June 1770) | view
199 (21 July 1770) | view
200 (28 July 1770) | view
202 (4 August 1770) | view
206 (1 September 1770) | view
209 (18 September 1770) | view
Showing the first 10 letters. Show all
Date: September-December 1770

Place: Bologna and Milan

Copies of the libretto: C-Tu, A-Wgm, Mus. Tm 1132 R, F-Po, Liv. It. 3529 (11), GB-Lbl, 11736.aa. 37, I-Bc, Lo. 3341, I-Rn, 40.9.D. 18/3, I-Rsc, XVIII 124, I-Rsc, Vol. 13.1.

Notes: Dramma per musica in three acts after Racine

Leopold Mozart knew that if his son was to gain success in the musical world, it would be by way of opera. He also knew that real operatic experience could only be gained in Italy; if Mozart himself was not Italian, he needed at least to learn and demonstrate a skill in Italian styles. Leopold and Wolfgang`s first tour through the peninsula (December 1769-March 1771) involved a leisurely trip passing through Verona, Mantua, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, back to Milan and ending in Venice.

On their first stay in Milan (January-March 1770), the Mozarts met Count Carl Joseph Firmian, Governor-General of Lombardy, who offered the commission of an opera to open the forthcoming carnival season (which traditionally began on St Stephen`s day). Mozart received the libretto of Mitridate, re di Ponto in Bologna on 27 July; the contract made the standard requirement of him to send the recitatives by October and arrive in Milan by 1 November to compose the arias to suit the singers. The fee was 100 gold gigliati plus accommodation. The Mozarts arrived in Milan on 18 October 1770, whereupon Mozart began serious work on the opera. Events are described in a series of excited letters home by Leopold and occasionally Wolfgang. There were some six weeks before the rehearsals started, and work was hampered by the late arrival of the primo uomo, forcing Mozart to delay writing his arias `so as to fit the costume to his figure` (letter of 24 November 1770). As usual, the libretto was not new — it was first set by Quirino Gasparini in 1767 — and Leopold feared that the prima donna might be persuaded to drop Mozart`s music in favour of Gasparini`s. Mozart also had to work hard—the number of drafts and discarded versions that survive is surprising for a composer who was normally so fluent—and the singers required extensive revisions: in the end, too, the lead tenor did indeed sing an aria by Gasparini, causing some rancour. But on the whole, the singers were pleased with the music, so Leopold said, and he considered that `Wolfgang has written the opera well and with great intelligence` (8 December 1770). Mitridate received 22 performances, the first three directed by the composer at the harpsichord. No doubt the spectacular scenery by the Galliari brothers aided the opera`s success.

The subject concerns the ancient enemy of Rome, Mithridates (c. 135-164 BC), despotic King of Pontus. It was popular—there are Mitridate operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Caldara, Porpora and Graun, amongst many others—in part because of the critical favour received by Racine`s play Mithridate (1673). As usual, too, there are significant deviations from history to conform to the requirements of the opera seria genre in terms of casting and subject-matter, both of which are served by conventional love-triangles and clashes of honour and ambition.

The scene is set in Nymphaeum in 63 BC. In Act 1, Mitridate (Mithridates), betrothed to Aspasia (Monime in Racine), is thought dead in battle against the Romans. His two sons, Sifare (Xiphares) and Farnace (Pharnaces), are in love with Aspasia, who in turn loves Sifare. Mitridate returns unexpectedly with the Parthian princess Ismene, whom he has destined for Farnace. He fears conspiracy from his sons, although the Governor of Nymphaeum, Arbate (Arbates), assures him of Sifare`s loyalty. Farnace, however, is in league with the Romans. In Act 2, Farnace scorns Ismene, while Mitridate suspects Aspasia. Sifare resolves to leave Pontus, taking a fond farewell of Aspasia. Farnace is accused of treachery by Mitridate, who also discovers Sifare`s illicit love; both sons are imprisoned. Act 3 begins with the preparations for the final battle with the Romans. Mitridate attempts to poison Aspasia but she is saved by Sifare, who resolves to die nobly in the fight. Farnace is freed from prison by his friend Marzio (Marcius) and shifts his allegiance from Rome to his father. The Romans are defeated but Mitridate has engineered his own death: he unites Sifare and Aspasia, and forgives Farnace, who marries Ismene.

The première was given by a star-studded cast headed by Guglielmo D`Ettore (tenor; Mitridate), Antonia Bernasconi (soprano; Aspasia), Pietro Benedetti (soprano castrato; Sifare) and Giuseppe Cicognani (alto castrato; Farnace); several were already known to the Mozarts (as Leopold explains in a letter of 28 July 1770). The musical sources are complicated by the drafts, revisions, excisions and additions (the last including in Act 1 scene 10 the March, K62, written in Salzburg in summer 1769 for the Serenade in D, K100), and some of the recitatives survive only incomplete. Clearly there were also problems of length: the first performance, which included three (unrelated) ballets by Francesco Caselli, lasted some six hours. It is not surprising (and entirely typical) that the opera runs out of steam towards the end, making almost nothing of the final reconciliation which is played just in recitative for all its more musical potential. One problem is the lengthy virtuoso arias which, as usual in the genre, dominate the score; there is just one duet (Sifare and Aspasia`s touching scene at the end of Act 2 which the singer Benedetti much admired) and a conventional final quintet. Almost every aria is in the usual two-stanza format to be set as a da-capo aria (an A section for the first stanza, a B section for the second, and a repeat of the A section). In earlier da-capo arias (say, by Handel) the first stanza is generally stated twice in the A section between three statements of an orchestral ritornello in tonic, dominant (or relative major in a minor key) and tonic. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the form had expanded to include four or more statements of the first stanza (two before the middle ritornello and two after), which could thus be heard eight or more times in the aria as a whole. Mozart often adopts the expanded form here—hence the length—although he generally makes some attempt to cut the da capo down from four statements to two or even one by beginning the reprise of the A section somewhere in its middle, leading to some rather abrupt tonal transitions.

All of this is conventional enough: the composer`s art (perhaps better, craft) lies instead in responding to the librettist`s contrasts of style and mood in successive arias while retaining opportunities for virtuoso display. Mozart manages to produce some striking music: Sifare`s moving farewell to Aspasia in Act 2 scene 7 (`Lungi da te, mio bene`; there are three extant versions, one with an obbligato horn part) and Farnace`s change of heart in Act 3 scene 9 (`Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto`) are worthy of the best Italian masters. One can also see Mozart flexing his muscles and exercising his right to vary the scheme. `Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto` is in a rich E flat major with oboes, horns and (at times) divisi violas—the last is always significant for Mozart—and contrasts an Andante for the A section with an Allegretto for the B section. Similarly, Mozart elsewhere uses two-tempo arias to highlight emotional issues, and he may have had some influence over the unusual number (six) of accompanied (rather than just secco) recitatives that enhance the dramatic expression; not surprisingly, three are in the intense Act 2. Few can have expected his handling of Aspasia`s poison scene in Act 3 scene 4, with its curious mixture of recitative and arioso. And the A major love-duet at the end of Act 2 consolidates a model that was to bear significant fruit in Mozart`s next Milan opera, Lucio Silla, and beyond.

It is tempting to see in Mitridate hints of Idomeneo and even La clemenza di Tito but this probably misses the point. Mozart was just discovering the trade of the opera house, and once the lessons were learnt he dropped the work: there is no mention of it in the letters after March 1771, and it was revived only in 1971 in Salzburg. The only difference from countless other would-be opera composers was that Mozart was not quite fifteen years old.

C. Gianturco, Mozart`s Early Operas (London, 1981)

from The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia ed. Cliff Eisen and Simon P.Keefe Cambridge University Press, 2006 (courtesy of Cambridge Un. Press)

Please use the following reference when citing this website:
Eisen, Cliff et al. In Mozart's Words, ' Mitridate, re di Ponto K.87' <http://letters.mozartways.com>. Version 1.0, published by HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.
In Mozart's Words. Version 1.0, published by HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.