At the Royal Opera House’s Saturday evening performance of Mozart’s opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, two parallel tales of young artists who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight collided. Mozart composed the opera in three months on commission for a 1771 premiere: at the time, he was only fourteen years old. Like that young rising star two centuries earlier, a pair of sopranos in the ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, Vlada Borovko and Francesca Chiejina, catapulted to center stage on Saturday, stepping in with hours’ notice for two ailing principals (Albina Shagimuratova and Jennifer Davis).

The newcomers had little time to settle in: Chiejina’s role, Arbate, sings the opera’s first line and Borovko’s role, the Emperor Mitridate’s fiancée Aspasia, performs the first, fiery aria. Chiejina has a warm, rich sound and a commanding presence. Borovko, though she struggled to animate the highly stylized movement of Graham Vick’s 1991 production, sings powerfully and precisely.

Vick’s striking staging puzzlingly combines elements of baroque costume and gesture with choreography and characterisation derived from various Asian traditions unceremoniously scrunched together. The blend of performance styles helps to keep the opera, structured largely as a series of arias and brief recitatives, engaging, but the Eastern caricatures register as more insensitive than illuminating, the sort of treatment that would never fly in a Mikado or a King and I nowadays (the story also isn’t set in any of the nations Vick’s production references).

Some dazzling performances mitigate this discomfort, though. As Ismene, the spurned beloved of the Emperor’s eldest son, Lucy Crowe delights with her nimble coloratura in “In faccia all’oggetto” and “So quanto a te dispiace” (given her vocally glorious performance, it’s a shame her role receives the most off-putting and distracting treatment in this production).

Making the best case for Mitridate as a work worthy of frequent revival, countertenor Bejun Mehta slithers across the stage as the lizard-like Farnace, Mitridate’s disloyal heir. He’s deliciously villainous in “Venga pur, minacci e frema,” but his eventual repentance aria, “Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto,” feels genuinely rendered, aided by Mehta’s thoughtful, restrained use of vibrato throughout. An Act II confrontation between Crowe and Mehta was the evening’s dramatic highlight.

Maestro Christophe Rousset coaxed ample colour out of the ROH orchestra, but there were some unusual moments of noticeable shakiness from individual musicians. Michael Spyres did not sound in best voice despite offering an appropriately forceful Mitridate, but soprano Salome Jicia, as the Emperor’s younger son Sifare, sang with a sleek, relaxed tone.

An unpredictable evening at Covent Garden, then, but one that, like Mitridate, re di Ponto’s premiere in 1771, promised much more to come from the young artists on display.

Mitridate, re di Ponto is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 7 July. For more information and tickets, see      

Image: Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House