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  • Mit(h)ridate's Poisoned Roots:Racine, Prose Tragedy, and Opera
  • Katharina Clausius (bio)

Antoine Houdar de la Motte's 1730 open letter to Voltaire on the subject of tragedy begins with an engagingly facetious, if abrupt, salutation: "I am delighted, sir, to see you so alarmed by what I have said."1 The source of Voltaire's aggravation was de la Motte's creative "translation" of the exquisite Alexandrine poetry of a seventeenth-century French tragedy into unadorned, unmetered prose. Voltaire's assessment of de la Motte's experiment was less than encouraging: the new version, he declared, was simply "unreadable."2 The text at the root of this particular paper war—Jean Racine's 1673 comparatively minor tragic play Mithridate—is not the likeliest of candidates for careful scrutiny from two of the Enlightenment's most prominent critics. After its modest success at the height of French neoclassicism, the work failed to secure the universal veneration bestowed on its siblings (Phèdre and Andromaque among them). Even more recent commentators dismiss the piece as "one of the problem plays" that regrettably "cannot be dismissed as an early effort."3 What Mithridate lacks in prominence, however, it makes up for in persistence, somehow finding itself at the center of Enlightenment debates on poetry, tragedy, prose, and opera.

Thanks in part to de la Motte's adventurous reinterpretation of Racine's play in the early eighteenth century, Mithridate has been rediscovered several times over—not as the untouchable masterwork of one of France's most luminary playwrights, but rather as a workable representative of the neoclassical tradition and as a play available for translation, adaptation, and experimentation. Mithridate's place in Racine's œuvre may be relatively insignificant, but its wider resonance penetrates the Enlightenment's most lively discussions as well as its most popular theatrical culture. The tragedy inspired numerous operatic settings during the eighteenth century, most notably librettist Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi and Mozart's Mitridate, rè di Ponto (1770), whose reimagining of Racine's play shares some of de la Motte's intrepidity even while it suffers the same neglect endured by its source text.4 Like Racine's tragedy, Cigna-Santi and Mozart's Mitridate enjoyed a modest success at its Milanese premiere but has subsequently drawn ambivalent commentary and [End Page 103] sporadic revivals. The strikingly abstract production by Günter Krämer in 2006 for the Salzburger Festspiele marks a high point in the opera's recent history, but Mozart's biography seems to preoccupy many critics, who deny that the inexperienced fourteen-year-old composer injected the opera with any dramatic complexity. Stanley Sadie, for instance, bluntly dismisses any deep interpretation of the opera: "anyone discovering subtleties of characterization is deluding himself; Mozart's youthful work will not bear interpretation in such terms."5

A second point of censure, paradoxically, is the opera's relationship to its Racinian source. Without undertaking any detailed comparison between the spoken and operatic versions of Mit(h)ridate, scholars are quick to hold Cigna-Santi and Mozart's opera up to the ideals of spoken tragic theater and to find it wanting. Charles Rosen, for instance, claims that "the tragedies of Racine are a mute presence [in Mozart's Mitridate], but their presence is above all a reproach."6 A. C. Keys is similarly dismissive when he argues that the opera's plot modifications do the "greatest violence . . . to the strict economy of Racinian tragedy."7 Paradoxically, Racine's "problem play" becomes a paragon of neoclassical refinement in Rosen's and Keys's commentaries. The deprecatory evaluations of Racine's play and Cigna-Santi and Mozart's opera either particularize the works in isolation from their cultural context or else generalize their features according to their respective theatrical traditions.

In contrast to such evaluations, this article first undertakes a close comparison of the Racinian and operatic versions of the story to show that far from casting a "mute" shadow on Cigna-Santi and Mozart's opera, Mitridate's literary roots assert themselves from several directions and illuminate rather than obscure the opera's dramaturgical nuances. Racine's eccentric structural decisions represent the most direct literary influence on...


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