What's Opera Doc?

What's Opera Doc?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Idomeneo, re di Creta ossia Naomi e Mozart

Even when it premiered in 1781, Idomeneo was old-fashioned. Nearly 50 years earlier, Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona swept through Europe and changed the face of the operatic world. The old opera seria with their jealous kings, vengeful demi-gods, and conniving sorceresses suddenly seemed archaic and flat, and the simple humanity of the new opera buffa was all the rage. In many ways, Mozart was the one who put the final nail in opera seria’s coffin. Even though he continued to use the form until his death, his masterful combination of the musical drama of seria with the humanist sensibility of buffa in his collaborations with Lorenzo Da Ponte (FigaroDon Giovanni, and Cosí) led to the near erasure of the distinction between the two, at least as far as musical style was concerned. Consequently, to hear a Mozart piece that is a fairly straightforward opera seria is a little jarring.

Which is why I’m glad the Met decided to revive this classic staging of Idomeneo. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production is older than I am, and bears all the marks of the Met in the 1980s: elaborate and grand, but also a bit stiff. Set changes were accomplished via drops rather than the mechanized wizardry we’ve come to expect in recent years, and the costumes, while stunning, were not designed with movement in mind. But given how old-fashioned Idomeneo is in the first place, I think this kind of old-school production works well with its dated musical forms and styles. We were experiencing Idomeneo as its first audiences might have: as a throwback to an earlier era.

Idomeneo by Jean-Pierre Ponelle

But for all of Idomeneo’s archaisms, musically it is still looks to the future. This is Mozart’s first mature opera, and you can see him playing around with all the techniques that make his later compositions so magnificent. His unparalleled small ensemble writing is on display in the famous Act III quartet, but what struck me most was the way the music's relationship to the drama foreshadows his more well-known works.

For all that we think of Mozart as part of the light and airy late 18th century, his gift for irony is part of what makes him my favorite composer. One of his tricks is to put characters in impossible emotional situations, and then have them not sing about it. Instead, he surrounds moments of anguish with some of his most serenely beautiful or triumphant sounds. In Idomeneo, the title character realizes he has inadvertently sworn to sacrifice his own son just as a grand triumphal march welcomes him home, and early in the second act, the princess Ilia tries to coax him out of his funk by appealing to his fatherly instincts, completely unaware that those sames instincts are the cause of his misery. These kinds of moments anticipate “Deh vieni” in Figaro, or “Fra gli amplessi” in Cosí. Even at this relatively early point in his adult career, Mozart understood that sometimes drama is in what you don’t—or can’t—say.

Also evident in Idomeneo is Mozart’s gift for understatement (highlighted perfectly by the fabulous James Levine). Mozart seems to be the only opera composer who knows when to dial it down rather than up. Other composers would have Idomeneo reveal his disastrous vow in a tortured aria with all kinds of dizzying vocal pyrotechnics. But Mozart sets it as accompanied recitative: small, quiet, and intimate. Even the Act III quartet, in which all four principles declare their suffering, is remarkably quiet, which makes it all the more heart-breaking (at least for me). It all presages one of my favorite moments in Figaro: after flurry of activity that is the Act III sextet, the two couples are left onstage alone, and contently muse about how happy they are. It’s not the music itself that makes these moments so wonderful, it’s how they’re set-up.

It's always a delight to discover a new opera that you love, and doubly delightful when such an inspiring and talented cast brings it to life. Alice Coote in the trouser role of Idamante (Idomeneo’s son) was perhaps my least favorite, playing the character a little sniffley for my taste. Still, vocally she was superb, with a rich yet flexible instrument that can handle anything Mozart throws at her. As his true love Ilia, Nadine Sierra was more much forceful that I would expect from a Mozart ingénue. It bugged me a bit at first, but by the end of her first aria I was on board. Her voice has a lot of muscle and burnish for a lyric soprano, which made the first aria—an Aida-esque meditation on captivity—a powerful moment. I suspect she might end up moving on to more dramatic roles as she matures; I’d love to see her take on one of the meatier Verdi women like Lady Macbeth or Abigaille if her voice goes in that direction.

Nadine Sierra and Alice Coote as Ilia and Idamante
Of course, Idomeneo wouldn’t work at all without a superb, well, Idomeneo. Fortunately, Matthew Polenzani was available. His voice sounds so natural and unforced that music just seems to flow out of him as easy as breathing. Dramatically, Idomeneo is tricky. He goes from anguished to more anguished to even more anguished, which is difficult to sustain over four hours (take that Wagner!), but I was riveted. He clearly understands what Mozart understood: sometimes the quietest moments are the most poignant, and his pianissimos were simply heart-breaking. Not that he can’t storm and rage with the best of them—he sang the runs and tricks of “Fuor del Mar” with ease (this is the dress, he sounded even better in the broadcast!).

Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo
But as good as Polenzani was, Elza van den Heever’s Elettra stole the show. The character is a distant cousin of Mozart’s later batty sopranos; she’s Donna Elvira with 50% more crazy, or The Queen of the Night with 60% fewer high notes. Van den Heever combined the best of both. The harsh edges in her sound made her passage work crystal clear, and with the help of her elaborate costume and over-the-top make-up, she commanded the stage every time she appeared. Her delightfully loony rendition of “DOreste, dAjace ho inseno i tormenti” (the link is unfortunately a different production) provided the perfect opportunity for a cathartic giggle after most harrowing scene of opera.

Elza van den Heever as Elettra 

In short, this opera was everything I love about Mozart with some of the best Mozarteans in the operatic world today. I dearly hope the Met decides to revive it more often.

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