Matthew Polenzani loves Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”
During a recent interview with OperaWire, the tenor went so far as to call it the composer’s “greatest opera.” That’s right, with output that includes gems such as “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” “Così Fan Tutte” and “Die Zauberflote,” Polenzani, who is among the greatest exponents of these very operas, puts his marker on the early drama.
“For me, this is Mozart’s greatest opera. Psychologically it is his most intensive and complete opera, of the ones I’m aware of,” Polenzani, who is in the midst of performing the title role at the Metropolitan Opera, asserted. “Even the standard rep works that deal with human relationships and drama, in my view, don’t cut so deeply to the core. Maybe in ‘Figaro’ the marital relations and betrayal cut to the core, but in a different way.
“This is just writing that is bigger and better. It is like his requiem but times 50,” he continued. “I mean you don’t get consistent quality like that in any of his other operas. And harmonically it is really forward-looking. He wrote this when he was 24, he had 12 more years to go. I don’t think he came close to this in any of the other things after this. And we have some masterpieces that come after it.”
He is quick to note the depth and power of the music, especially in the title character’s famous aria “Fuor del mar.”
“In this aria, the coloratura serves a dramatic purpose for me as the building of pressure. I never experienced as a singer singing Rossini,” he explained. “I never experienced the dramatic impetus of coloratura when it came to a vocal line and the way I feel it in ‘Fuor del mar.’”
The Greatest Love
For Polenzani, the opera holds a dear place in his heart because of its psychologically complex protagonist. For four hours, the Greek King is forced by Neptune to murder his own son Idamante to save his people from certain destruction.
“This opera is so psychologically packed for Idomeneo. You get a sense of his soul right at the beginning because he’s talking about the blood and the body that is going to be haunting him for the rest of his days. He loathes himself for having made the deal and for that weakness in him that accepted Neptune’s offer.”
But what keeps him coming back to the character is his fatherhood. Polenzani, the father of three children, repeated throughout the interview that he relates most directly to this aspect of the character and it has helped him peel back more and more layers into his difficult situation.
“One of the things I try hardest to bring out is the love of his child and his need to keep him alive at any cost. I relate strongly to that side of him. That fatherly love and fatherly pride through every moment,” he revealed. “I’ve been a father through the first few iterations, but you learn a little more each time around about the powerful love that binds him to his son.
“I have felt Idomeneo’s despair more deeply this time around than the first two times.”
Channeling Hate & Frustration
Surprisingly, this is the first time that the American singer will actually get to delve into those deep emotions of love and guilt while playing this character. His first production of the opera was “strange” and his second dive into the role, in 2014, showcased a radically different Idomeneo in a subversive production by Martin Kusej at the Royal Opera House.
“It was Idomeneo upside down because he spent the entire night pissed off with the world. He truly wanted to kill his son.”
Instead of wanting to save his son, he was angry that Idamante had stolen his spoils of war, Ilia, and had freed all of the prisoners that he planned to use as slave labor.
“It was particularly difficult because we included a lot of recitatives in which he is heart-broken and saying things like ‘I Love you’ to his son,” he added. “I said to Martin [Kusej], ‘How do I say these things?’ He responded that I needed to say them with sarcasm and contempt and making it plain on your face that you mean something completely different.”
One of the biggest shifts in the production for him was the very end of the opera in which Idomeneo turns over his Kingdom to his son and praises him with tremendous pride.
“For me, this passage is about an unbelievable weight being lifted off of him and him being able to breathe again. The immense pride he feels for his son is that he was willing to make the sacrifice, not only out of love for his father but out of love for his people and his country who he didn’t want to see harmed. That pride is an incredible thing. My children are little but I feel incredible pride for the people that they seem to be and the people I imagine them becoming. And I can only channel that energy and feeling to this scene.”
But in the Kusej production, there was no pride or love.
“That whole thing happened in his head. He was shuffling around on the stage. He collapses and dies. That whole passage is delivered like a deranged homeless man,” he stated. “For me, it was very tough to deliver text against the grain of the drama you are trying to portray. You can do it on occasion because lines that go against the grain can jab you and stab you in a way that draws attention to themselves. But if you do it all night, it loses its flavor. So you’re working that much harder to keep it interesting.”
That interpretation affected him so much that he has been unable to shake off its “infection.” The tenor revealed that at several junctures in the rehearsal process, the production team, led by stage director David Kneuss, reminded him to hold the demon of the other production in check.
“There’s this moment where I have to help Elettra get up so she can run off with Idamante. And David took me aside and said, ‘You do it in such a careless and cavalier and gruff way.’ I wasn’t aware I was channeling that energy,” he noted. There were times they needed to remind me to be more gentle even when I was being firm.”
Sharing the Love With An Old Friend
Of course, it has helped to be in the famed Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production that “prizes singing and beauty and relationship over making a specific dramatic statement that may or may not hold true.”
It also helps to be working with someone that has been a major part of his artistic growth – Metropolitan Opera Music Director Emeritus James Levine.
Polenzani was quick to point out that his work with Levine has been extensive and that almost half of his performances at the Met have been in collaboration with the conductor.
“Working on ‘Idomeneo’ with him has been as great an experience as any of the other experiences I have had with him, especially in terms of his musical drive to the solution,” he enthused. “He has ways of describing things. I have been working with him for close to 20 years and we have a way of understanding things. He has things to say to me, but because in many ways he trained me, I’m doing the things he asks of me by nature.”
Polenzani particularly loves Levine’s keen eye and ear for details, even outside of his expected domain.
“What happens on stage is crucial for him. Our look on stage is important to him,” he stated before relating a recent experience of tremendous insight on his character. “In the moment when I reveal to the public who the victim must be, I had started to move much sooner so I could be ready to exit the stage before the next chorus.
“And he came to me and said: ‘Matt, I think that whole line needs to be delivered in stillness. You don’t have the strength to move. You can’t believe you are going to reveal this, but there is no solution. If you don’t tell them, then more children like the one presented to you will die. You can’t move.’ This is coming from a guy conducting the orchestra. He just has an eye and ear for drama.”
Polenzani’s portrayal will be featured as part of the Met’s Live in HD series, after which he will also appear at the Met in “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Don Giovanni.” He will also appear in the 50th Anniversary gala, performing the love duet, “Nuit d’ivresse” from Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” alongside Susan Graham.
“It’s glorious, heavenly music,” he enthused. “It’s one of the most incredible things he ever wrote. Ben Heppner always used to say that this opera is for guys who sing ‘L’Elisir d’Amore and for guys who sing ‘Tristan und Isolde.’ This is one of those ‘Elisir’ moments.”
The remainder of the year will see the tenor take on “Die Zauberflote” and “La Favorite” in Munich. Next season he returns to the Met for “L’Elisir d’Amore” and noted that in the future he is adding roles from Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and “Macbeth.”
There will also be Captain Vere from “Billy Budd.”
“I can’t wait for that. I was in the chorus of ‘Billy Budd’ in 1993 or 4 at Opera Theater St. Louis and it still ranks in the top five of my musical experiences.”