Jacobs and a deep cast make eloquent case for “Idomeneo” at Mostly Mozart
Comparing the merits of Mozart’s operas is as endlessly involving and satisfying as manipulating a set of worry beads; is it great, a masterpiece, or perfection itself?
Idomeneo is not Mozart’s greatest opera; the story is larded with what were already clichés in 1781 and has substantial dramatic flaws. But it is packed with great music, and when sung and played with the understanding and skill that a deep cast, conductor René Jacobs and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir brought Thursday night to Alice Tully Hall, Idomeneo does sound like a masterpiece.
Presented by the Mostly Mozart Festival, this was a rare opportunity to witness Jacobs’ superb way with Mozart. His interpretations belong to the historically informed performance movement, but go far beyond demonstrations of sound and technique. Formerly a performing countertenor, Jacobs coaches humanist performances out of his singers, an articulation of notes and words that opens up Mozart’s music with characterization and internal drama.
The opera is full of the composer’s particular genius–arias and ensembles that deliver complex, human experience through the beauty of melodic shape and rhythm, and recitatives that create musical and psychological context that the singing resolves. Idomeneo can be heard as the place from which all Mozart’s finest future music comes, with melodies and harmonies, especially in the gorgeous choruses, that reappear all the way through the Requiem.
The story follows the title character, returning from the conquest of Troy. He is shipwrecked, and is saved by Neptune when Idomeneo promises he will kill the first person he sees in sacrifice to the god of the sea. That person is his son, the prince Idamante, himself involved in a love triangle between the captive Phrygian princess Ilia and the unbalanced Greek princess Elettra.
Giambattista Varesco’s libretto is static in the manner of Handel. This gave Mozart the opportunity to spin out long, complex arias, and the singing Thursday was a pleasure. In this concert performance, with minimal blocking, the voices and expressive charisma of the singers were paramount.
Surrounding the title character are women, not just Ilia and Elettra, but the trousers role of Idamante. In that role mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez’s singing was lapidary, every note centered, each carrying a feeling of clear-eyed determination.
As Idomeneo, Jeremy Ovenden displayed a lovely, Italianate tenor and expressed the character’s indecision and weakness with a subtle, elegant diffidence, hiding the character behind the beautiful façade of his phrases. His “Vedrommi intorno” was gentle and attractive, his confounding response to the entreaties of the High Priest, baritone Nicolas Rivenq, exactly right for the drama.
Sophie Karthäuser sang the soprano role of Ilia (the only singer not making their Mostly Mozart debut), while the explosive mezzo Alex Penda was ideal as Elettra. Following the overture, Ilia opens the opera with a long recitative and the aria “Padre, Germani, addio!”, and Karthäuser projected an ingénue with gravity.
Electra is superficially simpler, but all of Mozart’s characters, especially the women, are a mix of competing and contradictory thoughts and feelings. With Penda, all those feelings were delivered with power and musical substance, and her range went from the fury of “Tutte nel cor vi sento” to the sweetness of “Idol mio.”
Rivenq was dignified and understated, tenor Julien Behr sang richly in the role of Arbaces, and off-stage, bass Christoph Seidl sang Neptune with proper profundity.
The choruses are musically and dramatically important in Idomeneo, and the choir, directed by Erwin Ortner, was exceptional. Their ability to modulate timbre and color has rarely been heard so well, and made them as integral an instrument as the excellent orchestra.
The Freiburg players commanded an unusually broad palette of sound; they could be lean and reedy in the now classic period performance way, but also silvery, velvety, and pure. They made a large or small sound, depending on the moment, and their rhythmic exactitude was the engine that drove everything forward.
Fortepianist Sebastian Wienand deserves special mention, contributing recitative accompaniments that were full of responsive ornamentation and improvisation. This is an internal musical dialogue that Jacobs closely supervises in all his Mozart opera recordings, in a way that is unique on the classical music scene, and always absolutely correct. A detail, but an essential one in Jacobs’ larger goal of always letting Mozart be Mozart.
Mostly Mozart continues with the Mass in C minor and Requiem in David Geffen Hall, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. mostlymozart.org