Juvenilia is perhaps the wrong word for Mitridate, re di Ponto. Mozart’s first opera, composed at the tender age of fourteen, may not sparkle with the genius of his later works, but it is nonetheless highly sophisticated. In this new production by the Classical Opera Company, however, the delicate vibrancy of the piece is throttled by Martin Lloyd-Evans’s staging.

The story concerns Mitridate, King of Pontus as he attempts to discipline his sons, Sifare and Farnace, who are both after his own young fiancé Aspasia, while attempting to defend his kingdom against encroaching imperialist forces. Given the opera’s Black Sea setting and its hints at Western threat, Lloyd-Evans’s update to the present day Middle East is not unreasonable. Action takes place in a military bunker where desert warfare is directed from the computer lab, the only light comes from stark neon bars, and CCTV cameras project apparently random close-ups of the cast onto giant plasma screens.

Modern technology is employed at the expense of human drama: Sifare attempts to seduce Aspasia via MSN and when Farnace repents towards the end his joy comes from being reunited with his laptop. The men sport shiny suits and military fatigues while the women are generally to be seen wearing an incongruous negligee / headscarf combination. The tone throughout is relentlessly po-faced, not helped by lack of talent in the acting department, and the only jolt comes during Farnace’s imprisonment, where bare strip light and hints of torture make an unsettling evocation of the Abu Ghraib images.

It’s a shame the project misfires dramatically, because it has been long in the making and has value both musically and vocally. COC founder Ian Page has carefully reconstructed the ‘original’ score (before the adolescent Mozart bowed to rewrite requests on certain arias) with the help of Stanley Sadie, and details this considerable achievement in his extensive programme notes. Page himself conducted a neat and well-paced performance from the Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company and the singers overcame a number of problems with professionalism.

Due to the indisposition of Sigríður Ósk Kristjánsdóttir the role of Arbate was acted mute by assistant director Rodopi Gaitanou and sung competently from the sidelines by mezzo Stephanie Marshall. As Farnace Stephen Wallace gets some of the best music, including the showcase aria ‘Venga pur, minaccia e frema’, which he sang with aplomb though his counter-tenor sounded quite hooty at times – a residual effect of his announced illness, perhaps.

Kashani Jayasinghe’s wonderfully soft-textured soprano fares well in the role of Sifare while Allison Bell and Mary Nelson made impressive contributions, as Aspasia and Ismene respectively, though the former had the edge. And in the title role, Mark Le Brocq’s smooth tenor voice brought a steadying influence to the whole performance. All the singers carried a significant weight on their shoulders but performed admirably in the circumstances.

Reviewed at Sadlers Wells on 2 June 2009. The production plays at Buxton Festival on 12,20,24 July.

- Laura Battle