Met’s inspired cast delivers the musical riches of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”
The dozens of empty orchestra seats at the Metropolitan Opera House Monday night for the opening of Idomeneo indicated that this is not among Mozart’s most popular operas–even with James Levine in the pit.
That visual evidence indicates that Idomeneo is not as popular as Mozart masterpieces like Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte because it is not as well known. It’s both a paradox and a tautology—popularity comes from awareness, which is based on performances, which depend on popularity. This was only the 68th performance ever at the Met, and that lack of exposure is a shame because Idomeneo offers some of Mozart’s finest opera music, especially when sung and played as well as it was Monday night.
The setting is ancient Crete, where King Idomeneo (tenor Matthew Polenzani) is returning from the Trojan war. His son, Idamante (mezzo Alice Coote), awaits him, as does the Trojan slave girl, Ilia (Priam’s daughter), and Agamemnon’s daughter Elettra (sopranos Nadine Sierra and Eliza van den Heever, respectively). Both women are in love with Idamante, who in turn loves Ilia.
Idomeneo is shipwrecked, and, near drowning, vows to sacrifice the first person he sees on land if Neptune will save him. Alive on the shore, the first person he sees is Idamante.
And so the drama ensues, or better put the conflicts are established which are eventually vanquished through singing and that old standby, the intervention of a god—via an off-stage cameo from bass-baritone Eric Owens.
The librettist Giovanny Battista Varesco was no Lorenzo Da Ponte, and Idomeneo is not great music drama. Premiering in 1781, it points the way forward to the later masterpieces. It doesn’t have the meticulous large-scale structure of a Figaro, but it is full of extraordinary music that equals, if not exceeds, Mozart’s more famous works.
In a way, the mediocre libretto is a benefit. Without deep characterization and much in the way of actual drama and resolution, Mozart just had voices, and so he wrote more than a dozen extended, gorgeous arias, interspersed with lyrical orchestral recitatives. The music overflows with marvelous melodies and powerfully affecting harmonies. Add some of his greatest and most dramatically important choruses—sung with an exciting, raw vitality by the Met Opera Chorus—and you have a masterpiece of music, if not an operatic masterwork.
The performance was musically superb. This started immediately with the impassioned overture, then Sierra burst open with a recitative and “Padre, germani, addio,” setting the pace for everything to come. Her voice balanced youthful shine and, just under the surface, deep feeling. She was incandescent all night, singing with great ease and richness, and modulating naturally between moods of loss, love, regret, and pride.
Some of the other singing suffered, for a moment, in comparison. Coote’s own first act aria, “Non ho colpa,” seemed a touch staid after Sierra’s singing. Her vibrato was not completely under control at first, and some of her rhythms were mushy. But these flaws were temporary. In the quiet and tense scene where Idamante discovers Idomeneo alive on the shore, Coote was exact, her sound focussed and relaxed, less effortful and more impressive. In Act III, “No, la morte” flowed out of her with musical and expressive clarity and strength.
Van den Heever was excellent as Elettra, rivaling Sierra for the beauty of her singing and relishing the sheer excitement of the character’s music. Where Ilia expresses various degrees of love, tenderness, and duty, Elettra is, well, Elettra, full of barely concealed violent passions and murderous rages. Van den Heever handled this entire range with her voice (although the impressive architecture of her dress was nearly a character in itself), and managed to be not only gripping but sympathetic. She burned with controlled intensity in her Act I aria “Tutte nel cor,” and the mad scene and collapse in Act III, when she realizes she has lost Idamante to Ilia, was stupendous (with the unintentionally comic touch of the audience cheering for her as a cohort of supernumeraries carried her catatonic body offstage).
Idomeneo is an ideal role for Polenzani, whose elegant singing embodied the character. The inherent transparency, dignity, and smooth grain of his voice makes him a fine Mozart tenor, and his musical characterization was excellent. Every phrase seemed deliberate yet unmannered, the sound of Idomeneo thinking through his duty, his debt, and his impossible choice. This is particularly challenging because the libretto makes Idomeneo the dullest of the characters. Polenzani solved this problem with outstanding renditions of “Vedrommi intorno” and “Fuor del mar.”
There is an important secondary role in Arbace, the king’s counselor. Baritone Alan Opie is scheduled in the role, but was ill Monday and Gregory Schmidt filled in. He sounded noticeably stiff in the Act II showpiece aria, “Se il tuo duol,” but seemed to gain confidence and finished with a flourish. He was strong in Act III’s expressive recitative, “Sventurata Sidon!”
Levine maintained an excellent pace and sense of velocity all night, even in Acts II and III when the libretto is one set piece or aria after another. Tempos slow down drastically in those acts, but Levine goosed all the up-tempo sections. The Met Orchestra’s playing was vivacious, with lovely colors from the woodwinds, and there was an intimate call-and response-relationship with the singers.
Idomeneo premiered at the Met in 1982, and has known only that original production from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. It is handsome and effective, with Piranesain backdrops and the giant, looming visage of Neptune. The sets and costumes have an intriguing look of a late 20th century view of how the 18th century saw ancient history. The sole problem is acoustic—a gap in middle of the roof in the set swallows up a good percentage of the volume of whosever voice is unfortunate to be singing beneath it.
That was a minor flaw against the quality of the performances, just as the libretto turns out to be an inconsequential distraction from one of Mozart’s most wonderful scores.
Idomeneo continues at the Metropolitan Opera through March 25. Ying Fang sings Ilia on March 17. metopera.org