Mozart’s noble Idomeneo honors the Metropolitan Opera

Idomeneo is a wonder, arguably Mozart’s grandest, richest score, written for, at the time, one of the more remarkable orchestras in the world. How liberating it must have been for the young genius, knowing that the band could play whatever notes he put on the sheets.

It was Mozart’s most important commission to date, the festival centerpiece of the 1781 Carnival season in Munich. In fact the world premiere almost occurred on his twenty-fifth birthday, but delays were caused by a lot of last minute trimming, rewriting, and also troubles with the singers, particularly with the old tenor selected for the title role. The trill was gone.

Idomeneo’s labor and painful birth pangs are well documented in Mozart’s letters to his father. Its positive reception and the confidence and experience Mozart gained from this all prompted his decision to move up to the major musical league in Vienna. There he would spend the last ten years of his life composing four of the finest operas ever written, plus two other full length ones quite well received at the time, and his major symphonies, and the concerti…you know the rest.

Idomeneo is opera seria in style, not an opera buffa like his earlier La finta giardiniera. Serious opera, in other words, not a buffoonery. It contains predictable seria themes: internal conflict within a royal family, a king and/or a queen under duress, a love triangle, but in the end all resolves in ways to some degree rational and good, demonstrating the ruler’s inner strength, wisdom, nobility of character and forgiveness. These operas were funded by royalty and power and therefore had to please and massage egos, but the characters on stage also provided role models for the members of the audience.

The presence of the sea god Neptune dominates  Idomeneo

The presence of the sea god Neptune dominates Idomeneo

Idomeneo, the King of Crete, has made a bargain with Neptune: if the sea god saves the King’s ship from certain destruction, the King will have to sacrifice the first person he meets, which, it so happens, is Idamante, Idomeneo’s own devoted son, who is out on the shore looking for evidence of his father’s return.

Knowing what he must do and knowing the terrible consequences of coming up short on his end of the bargain, Idomeneo cannot even look Idamante in the eye. Plus, Idamante loves Ilia, a Trojan princess captured during the war, though another princess, Elettra by name, lays claim to Idamante’s hand. Well, it’s enough to make for a full evening of glorious singing and all ends well for everyone, except for Elettra, who has one of the great hissy fits in all opera.

Idomeneo at the Met this season is wonderfully cast, all under the baton of James Levine. Levine is responsible for bringing Idomeneo to the Met (the production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle premiered in 1982); his reading of the score is both inspired and reverential, as if he were making an offering to the gods of music. The balance of the instruments in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is conspicuous, as is the overall shape of the larger numbers, particularly the ensemble singing in twos, threes and in that glorious quartet Andrò ramingo e solo early in Act III. If at times Levine’s devotion is expressed by dwelling on sections of the score, particularly those sections underlying the more solemn events toward the opera’s conclusion, he also rises to the frenzy of Elettra’s psychotic episode and to the ensuing joyous celebration of Idamante’s ascension to the throne and his union in marriage with Ilia.

Matthew Polenzani is Idomeneo

Matthew Polenzani is Idomeneo

The singers are particularly apt for their parts. Matthew Polenzani’s Idomeneo is characterized by a long, even vocal line and sweet, pleasing tones. He communicates his grief in expression and posture. Idamante is taken by Alice Coote, who continues to demonstrate her grasp and execution of fine bel canto singing. New to me is soprano Nadine Sierra as Ilia: she too portrays her grief as a prisoner, but also shows the joy she feels when she and all of the Trojan prisoners are released and the unambiguous love she shares with Idamante. All nicely done.

Nadine Sierra is Ilia, the Trojan Princess

Nadine Sierra is Ilia, the Trojan Princess

With an evening full of such gentle characters, Elza van den Heever’s Elettra is especially electric, certainly in the aforementioned frenzy D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno i tormenti in Act III in which she implores vipers and serpents to tear out her heart, the creatures politely taking turns of course. Vipers must be role models too.

But van den Heever is a psychological presence whenever she is on stage, singing or not, and her participation in the ensembles is always conspicuous. The ovation she received at the final curtain was well deserved. Welcome back; mille bravi!

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in  Idomeneo

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Idomeneo

Others in the cast include Alan Opie as Arbace, Noah Baetge as the forceful High Priest, and Eric Owens as the voice of Neptune.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production is as heavy as one imagines the real columns for these structures to be, but to me it complements the opera perfectly. Scene changes, minimal mostly, are effected by scrims lowered in back, an occasional new piece of furniture, and the assertion and retreat of the large stone mask of Neptune, such as one might find on a water fountain at a seaside park, only much bigger (see first photo above). But the drama is all in the music and the text. At least the production is not busy and distractingly silly just to compensate for the stately pace of it all. Mozart’s Idomeneo is a magnificent opera. Opera seria, 1781. Catch it if you can.

Reviewed performance: March 13, 2017

Photos: Marty Sohl.

See OperaMetro’s exclusive interview with Elza van den Heever on the page Interviews.

Of course the first person Idomeneo sees is his beloved son Idamante, heir to the throne! Seriously, were it a commoner out clam digging on that shore, whack! The opera’d be over in 20 minutes!

Thank heaven it’s Mozart.

Enjoy! My Monday was the serious quiet before the on-the-whole not so perfect storm…spring is on the way, one hopes!