This review is for the premiere on opening night of the run, March 6, 2017.
Mozart’s “Idomeneo” has accrued quite the history at the Met since its premiere in 1982. It has been sung by major singers that include the likes of Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Ileana Cortrubas, Hildegard Behrens, Frederica Von Stade and Carol Vaness among many others. Safe to say, all-star casts are generally the order of the day anytime this opera gets its a performance on the Met stage.
For this year’s production, the company has assembled yet another team of stars for the Greek drama and the result is simply a marvelous feast.
Set on the island of Crete, Mozart’s opera, composed in the baroque style with a plethora of arias and only a few crucial ensembles, follows the story of King Idomeneo as he deals with the challenge of having to sacrifice his own son Idamante to placate the God Neptune. Meanwhile, Idamante has fallen for the Trojan Princess Ilia, to the distress of the increasingly insane Greek princess Elettra.
The Key Ingredient
Taking on the title role was American tenor Matthew Polenzani, who has virtually dominated the Mozart repertoire at the Met. Idomeneo is an intense vocal sing, the tenor often asked to sing over an imposing orchestra and really channel his dramatic prowess in a way that no other Mozart role ever calls for. Polenzani excelled in expressing the character’s inner turmoil, his body hunched over throughout the opening exchanges as if protecting himself from the world around him. Throughout his initial aria “Vedrommi intorno,” his voice was delicate but exploded with a thick layer of powerful sound at “Qual dolore” before returning to the hushed phrasing on “Di tormento.” In the ensuing scene with Idamante, Polenzani’s singing shifted from tender to pointed and fiercely accented as he threatened his son to stay away from him with the most menacing of glares.
His second aria, the famous “Fuor del mar ho un mar in seno” is a virtuoso showcase filled with treacherous coloratura and some of the heaviest orchestra accompaniment in any Mozart opera as Idomeneo rages against his cruel fate. Polenzani’s voice found even greater potency and heft in this aria and yet he transitioned easily into the challenging roulades that Mozart employs throughout. During the middle section, “Or gli vieta il naufragar,” the singing was at its most gentle, the tempo slackened a bit and a G sharp fermata was met with a pianissimo ascension up the octave accentuating a deep suffering within the character. But the recapitulation of the aria was met with more stentorian sound and even a shade of brusqueness. You could sense that Idomeneo might collapse from the rage and this was best embodied in the cadenza, Polenzani capping it with a might high B natural.
As the opera unfolded, it was impossible to overlook Polenzani’s every serious countenance. Anytime he walked onto the stage, he immediately darkened it, his troubled visage coupled with his regal, yet cautious gait embodied the tortured King. During the climactic encounter with Idamante, the tenor’s voice was at its most forceful, expressing the inner struggle at its most powerful.
During the final recitativo, during which Idomeneo concedes his kingdom to his son, Polenzani’s voice was at its most relaxed, each phrase uttered with sweetness of tone, particularly on the words “Mio figlio” and the closing “Oh me felice,” a smile finally appearing on his face to truly cathartic effect.
Idomeneo’s plight is a challenging one to identify with, but Polenzani manages to create the empathy essential to keeping this drama relevant and immersive.
Other Rich Flavors, Of the Mezzo & Soprano Variety
In the role of Idamante was mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whose interpretation gave the impression of the youth and inexperience of the character. Idamante is repeatedly faced with situations that he simply has no idea how to handle, his stance often to back off and approach from a distance. We saw this throughout his initial exchange with Ilia, Coote’s Idamante circling around his beloved while pouring out his heart with exuberant phrasing. Faced with Idomeneo for the first time, Coote’s Idamante ran to him only to suddenly find herself looking about wide-eyed in confusion at the rejection, her singing hushed and cautious as the character copes with a new and painful reality. During the aria “Il padre adorato” her singing was lush and vibrant, withering at the tail end of the aria as Idamante whimpers with defeat.
Her love duet with Nadine Sierra was one of the touchstone musical moments of the night, the two combining their voices into beautiful harmony, every musical gesture, vocal oscillation and phrase in perfection synchronization. Faced with death in the final scene, Coote’s voice roared, almost challenging Polenzani’s own potent interpretation as the two battled emotionally.
Nadine Sierra gets the difficult task of kicking off the entire evening with nearly 10 minutes of solo singing. Moreover, Ilia finds herself in tremendous distress in this early portion and her aria “Padre, germani, addio!” was filled with challenging ascensions and attacks. Sierra, whose voice is of a sweet complexion, expressed Ilia’s anxiety through a coarser tone, the phrasing jagged at times. But as Ilia’s comfort grew throughout the evening, her voice developed a sunnier quality that was exemplified during the second aria “Se il padre perdei,” her legato refined. Even her third act lament “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” had warmth and gentility. The aria is rich in long note crescendos, which Sierra accomplished with polish and increasing control. In comparison with the opening aria, this suffering was marked by a greater sense of control, allowing the viewer to feel that Ilia has gained in maturity and confidence.
A Little Bitterness To Spice Things Up
Elettra is the Ying to Idomeneo’s Yang, her selfish nature echoing his and yet also matching his sense of guilt. After all, she murdered her mother and he is tasked with murdering his son. Finding someone that can create the same sense of darkness and yet similar empathy as he does is always a tall order for the interpreter of this role. Not for Elza van den Heever.
This is her third run as Elettra in her career and she recently noted that she saw the princess as an “outsider,” not too dissimilar to the titular character himself. Stylistically, she opted for a very physical performance that was light-years away from anyone else’s, her Elettra’s body contorting throughout the opening aria “Tutte nel cor vi sento.” With the massive dress, she would hunch over into a crouched position, looking like a beast ready to spring on her intended prey, her voice filled with snarl and bite. But instead of just showcasing Elettra as a one-dimensional monster, she opted for a more complex showcase, the latter sections of the aria characterized by a sudden sense of fear and remorse, her eyes widening and her body closing up. To combat this internal strife she sucked the lushness out of her voice, the almost spoken quality developing an exciting crudeness that immediately reasserted her violent nature.
The second aria “Idol mio, se ritroso” and its ensuing passages were quite the shift, van den Heever playing up the schizophrenic nature of the character with the most honeyed vocal interpretation one could anticipate. The polished legato and ever so gentle approach to every single line of music a far cry from the frenzy of the opening aria. Even her body language shifted radically, an elegant gait followed by prostration and submission before the King’s chair. If this had been her first entrance of the night, we would have thought that this Elettra was the sweetest woman in the room.
But as it turns out, she isn’t and van den Heever’s violent potential reached its apex in an unhinged “D’Oreste, D’Aiace,” the opera’s most famous aria. It was a vicious rendition performed with abrasive tone quality and forceful accents throughout, Elettra’s venom being spewed with every word that came from van den Heever’s rich voice. But the more slime she threw about the more out of control she was of her physical nature, the character slowly imploding until she collapsed to the ground, a few shudders and shakes emerging as if her body remained possessed by some demon. The moment was so dramatically effective that van den Heever won arguably the most enthusiastic ovation of the night.
Gregory Schmidt stepped in for Alan Opie in the role of Arbace and was particularly affecting during the sequence in which he comments on the darkness surrounding the Kingdom. His pointed phrasing, while full of lament, seemed to be goading the king into doing his duty to end the suffering.
As the High Priest, Noah Baetge sang with clear voice and finesse. In his own brief cameo, Eric Owens’ bass boomed through the Met with clarity and fervor.
One would be remiss not to mention the powerful sense of ensemble that permeated this work. From the sumptuous choral singing to the four soloists (Michelle Bradley, Rihab Chaieb, Rolando Sanz and David Crawford) in the isolated duets to the magnificent quartet with its yearnful lament, the sense of cohesion was a trademark of this performance.
The Master Chef
And for this, we have Maestro James Levine to thank for this. From the march-like opening notes to the ecstatic jubilation that closes the work, Levine gave a masterclass in detail, precision and musical cohesion. Every aria was a gem unto its own, the accompaniment pronounced and yet always working alongside the soloist searching for unity. A particularly fascinating moment came during Ilia’s second aria “Se il padre perdei,” the woodwinds roaming about the musical atmosphere with gorgeous major scales. Never have repetitions of major scales sounded so vivacious as in this reading, expressing Ilia’s joy. Elettra’s final aria was met with cataclysmic sound from the orchestra, the attacks shaking the opera house. The final chorus was an explosion of triumph, the violins’ exuberant runs jolting with excitement, giving this opera the festive close it deserves.
Levine’s careful approach to recitatives was also not lost on this listener, his work in the initial Idamante and Idomeneo exchange particularly chilling for its brutal shift in tone through rigid chords that seemed like weights dropping on each characters’ shoulders. The most illuminating moment came before Elettra’s aria, the major chord sequence suddenly shifting into a minor progression. Levine did not overdo the sudden shift, but he had been building a crescendo through the previous phrases, the tonal shift coming at the apex of the sequence and emphasizing the character’s emotional instability and reminding us of how great a dramatic genius Mozart was.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production remains an elegant one, a massive recreation of Neptunes face overriding the proceedings, minimizing the characters onstage in ominous fashion. The overall sense of balance present throughout the set itself allows for strong visual mise-en-scene and staging that can quickly create a sense of imbalance when characters shifts around it. Ilia’s first aria sees Idamante and Elettra loom over her from the wings while a shift from her toward the other automatically lets us feel the menace that this love triangle presents to the drama as a whole. Idomeneo enters from the center of the stage, right out of Neptune’s mouth, but his movement throughout his first aria never has him firmly in the middle. The same happens during his second aria. At other times, this central framing of the stage allows for strong mirroring, as is the case during Ilia’s final aria. It all adds to powerful visual storytelling wrought through elegant and simple means.
The wardrobe is equally inciteful in its economic storytelling. Elettra gets the most outlandish dress in pure black. You will never miss her whatsoever. Idomeneo, fraught with his own sense of guilt, becomes Elettra’s foil through his own darker wardrobe. His velvet robes are also matched by the priests in the latter scenes, stripping him of his individuality and even his power. Meanwhile, the lovers get to showcase lighter colors, Ilia’s dresses looser and freer than Elettra’s.
Mozart’s “Idomeneo” is a challenging work but the team put together at the Met makes us ignorant of that fact. This is a musical feast and dramatic banquet if there ever was one, with Maestro Levine reminding us that he is still one of the most brilliant musical minds around.