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30.5.06

Opera on DVD: "Idomeneo"

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W. A. Mozart, Idomeneo, Luciano Pavarotti, Hildegard Behrens, Frederica von Stade, Ileana Cotrubas, Metropolitan Opera, James Levine (re-released on April 11, 2006)
The picture on the cover of this DVD's box tells most of the story: it was the Met, it was the 1980s, a man named Joseph Volpe was only an assistant general manager, and the premier American opera company was finally getting around to performing Mozart's Idomeneo. This production made Mozart's early work popular with mainstream opera audiences, and it did that by showing that the big stars of the day -- Ileana Cotrubas, Hildegard Behrens, Frederica von Stade, and, God help us, Luciano Pavarotti (does that cast list take you back two decades or what?) -- wanted to sing it and actually did a nice job.

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Idomeneo, Glyndebourne Festival, T. Nunn, B. Haitink, P. Langridge, Y. Kenny


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Idomeneo, Drottningholm Slottsteater (released May 16, 2006)
Now, for my money, this would not be the way I would optimally want Idomeneo immortalized on my DVD player. I would lean toward one of the smaller productions, informed more by early music practices, like the 1983 Glyndebourne Festival version (with Trevor Nunn, Bernard Haitink, Philip Langridge, and Yvonne Kenny) actually set in Crete (strangely not the version chosen to be re-released as part of a Mozart Year Glyndebourne set this year, like this DG set of Mozart I have been reviewing here, beginning with La Clemenza di Tito). Even better, I am guessing, would be the Drottningholm Slottsteater version, with the added benefit of the beauty and authenticity of that remarkable theater, just released by Arthaus Musik this month (which I am hoping to see soon).

What will you get with this Deutsche Grammophon re-release? A vast production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose Met staging of L'Italiana in Algeri was just unearthed again here in Washington and whose "on location" film version of La Clemenza di Tito I recently reviewed. The set is mostly dominated by a massive mask, representing the ever-present menace of Neptune and based, it seems to me, on the Bocca della Verità in Rome. At other times, there are huge backdrops based on the engravings and drawings by Piranesi and others in the 18th century, showing the classical ruins of Greece and Rome. Ponnelle's costumes are all from Mozart's time, 18th-century Vienna, a conceit also found in the Clemenza film, meant to show that although the story is classical, Mozart was actually creating a work about his own age. This is another one of those operas about a ruler stepping down from power to avoid the death of the innocent.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Veduta dell'Arco di Tito, image scanned by René SeindalThe Elector of Bavaria commissioned Idomeneo for his court theater in Munich, where it was premiered in 1781, using an Italian libretto by Giambattista Varesco. The story is drawn from the legends of the Trojan War: Homer describes Idomeneos, king of Crete and the grandson of Minos, in the Iliad as the general who led the soldiers of Crete to fight with the Greeks (and doing some pretty kickass things on the battlefield in Book XIII). Virgil and others told the story of his return home, when he was nearly killed in a storm at sea. Poseidon saves Idomeneos, as he had helped him throughout the war, but requires the sacrifice of the first person Idomeneos lays eyes on when he gets to land, and that turns out to be his own son. Of course, in the Greek and Roman versions, Idomeneos carries out the god's demand and slays his own son, only to be cursed by the gods for filicide and driven further from Crete. In ancient Greece, you were damned if you did and damned if you didn't. You were just damned.

Mozart himself recycled the opera later in life, in a severely cut and reshaped version. (As stated in the liner notes, the composer's wife reported after Mozart's death that his time working on this opera in Munich was one of the happiest in his short life, probably filled with hope that he would soon have a court position that would allow him to create opera. Life does not always turn out as we hope.) I congratulate the Met because, although they took long enough to get around to performing Idomeneo, they used the critical edition by the excellent Mozart specialist Daniel Heartz for the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, reconstituting the (almost) complete score for the first time. Hooray for musicology! This nearly full version is three hours long, and the only major omission (an unfortunate one) is the ballet that Mozart composed to conclude the opera at Munich. I wish that we could get over the modern operatic aversion to lengthy ballets, as they are an essential and glorious heritage of the court origins of the genre.

The singing is, with few exceptions, absolutely stellar. Luciano Pavarotti, for all of his dramatic impediments, is powerful in the title role, a voice that always impresses in spite of its occasional imprecision and ugliness. Frederica von Stade gives one of her most convincing performances in a pants role ever, as Idomeneo's son, Idamante. Her Act III duetto ("S'io non moro a questi accenti") with the exquisite Ileana Cotrubas (as the Idamante's beloved Trojan princess, Ilia) and the subsequent quartetto (with Pavarotti and Hildegard Behrens as Elettra, who is also in love with Idamante) are all wonderful. The standout performance is Hildegard Behrens, as the obsessed and cracking Elettra: her unhinged performance of "Oh smania! oh furie!" at the end of the third act, in a frizzy, bright orange wig is one for the ages, incendiary singing married to frenetic acting. Instead of following the libretto's stage direction ("parte infuriata"), she is carried off, frozen where she falls prone, arms sticking up above her head. The only (slight) disappointment is older tenor John Alexander as a warbly and poorly accented Arbace, the confident of Idomeneo.

Millicent Scarlett, sopranoThe huge Met chorus sings Mozart's weighty choral numbers with enough heft for Tannhäuser. The Act III choral scene ("Oh voto tremendo!") is one of Mozart's best, leading into the appearance of La Voce, the voice of Neptune that suspends Idamante's death sentence if Idomeneo will abdicate as King of Crete. Neptune's voice is heard, of course, accompanied by trombones. Mozart knew his Gluck, who had used trombones to supernatural effect in Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna, 1762) and four later operas, all of which were probably familiar to Mozart by the time he was working on Idomeneo. He would use the instruments later, to much greater effect, in the "stone guest" scene in Don Giovanni. Monteverdi also used trombones in a similar way, in the Hades scene if L'Orfeo and accompanying the anger of Poseidon in Il ritorno d'Ulysse in patria, although I doubt that Mozart knew those 17th-century operas. James Levine conducts a fine reading of this beautiful score with the Met orchestra. The sound and picture, captured digitally from a VHS recording, are not perfect but fine enough.

All of this is by way to telling our Washington readers to attend the upcoming live performance of Mozart's Idomeneo this Friday and Saturday (June 2 and 3, 7:30 pm) by Opera Lafayette at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park. It is a concert performance, but with dance provided by the New York Baroque Dance Company (hopefully, with that concluding ballet). The singing should be quite good, including Robert Baker as the High Priest, François Loup as the Voice of Neptune, and Millicent Scarlett as Elettra (I heard her powerful voice in excerpts from this role last October). This is the first concert in this summer's Washington Early Music Festival. Ionarts will be there.

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