Opera began as a lavish form of court entertainment. Its creators were intellectuals, egg-headed academics who were trying to resurrect the ancient Greek tragedy. Its main patrons and consumers were members of the noble class, supporters of the humanist intelligentsia. In the palazzi of Florence and Rome, in the châteaux of France, operas were one-time pull-out-all-the-stops performances, often the centerpiece of a vast private spectacle, lasting all night, with food, dancing, costumes, masks, intrigue, drinking, and general hoopla, all meant to transport the ruler's guests into another world and impress them with the depth of his purse.
How long did one of these operas -- created by a hopeful, talented young composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the Munich residence of the Elector of Bavaria in 1781 -- last at its first and only performance until centuries later? As we learned from Opera Lafayette's integral recreation of Idomeneo last night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, about four hours. The relatively full house dwindled at each intermission, until by the end, the audience could barely applaud long enough to see the singers off the stage. Spectators and performers alike raced for the parking lot, only to be caught by a sudden, drenching cloudburst.
I am one of those egg-headed academics, too, an idealist who in the interest of musical reconstruction believes that Idomeneo without the ballets makes about as much sense as Leonardo's Last Supper with three of the outermost apostles cropped out of the picture. Yes, we can still understand the story, but it's not the whole story. The fear of driving away listeners with attention deficit disorder is a real fear -- I overheard the arguments of a group of people who were trying to decide whether to leave at the first intermission. As this concert performance gave them a few moments of boredom, they left. Part of the problem was that we had all of the music, but not enough of the spectacle. It is high time for an opera company to invite Opera Lafayette for a residency in its theater, as is now more and more the standard practice in Europe. (You know, a performance of Opera Lafayette in this place could be very nice.) Think more feasting and extravagance and less reverent, silent concert attitude. If Opera Lafayette had given these bored listeners some ice cream and a staged performance, they would have stayed.
Tom Huizenga, A Grand 'Idomeneo' From Ambitious Little Lafayette (Washington Post, June 5)
John Wall, Review of Mozart, Idomeneo by Opera Lafayette with the New York Baroque Dance Company (NewOlde.com, June 6)
What spectacle this performance did have was provided by members of the New York Baroque Dance Company, who danced in the space in front of the musicians during the ballet music. As noted in the program notes, there is no surviving choreography from the Munich performance, so these dances are inspired guesswork. If you need visual proof of my old saw, that dance music from the 17th and 18th centuries needs a constant rhythmic pulse -- even when stylized as in the Bach suites -- you need only watch and listen to this combination of music and movement for about 30 seconds. The dancing was generally graceful and visually diverse. The only disappointment was the monster that is supposed to rampage through Crete killing people, here depicted by three dancers with pieces of purple fabric. Where were the horrible teeth and the taloned claws?
The voice of Kirsten Blaise (Ilia) should probably be characterized as a lyric soprano or soubrette, with pure and golden tone in the high range and not much in the middle. She sang those money notes all night long, with exceptional beauty, although she was completely covered at other times. (Her reduced volume may be related to the hacking cough we heard from her in the third act.) I was most impressed with the dramatic flair and vocal power of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel as Idamante, the role created by castrato Vincenzo del Prato. This is a voice that has edge and tension but none of that overly throaty quality you sometimes hear in mezzo-sopranos. The only negative point was her mannerisms -- conducting herself on long lines, aiming for notes with her forefinger and thumb in a circle. These are singer's affectations that should be left in the studio. The other female lead, Elettra, is the fun role, with an aria calling on the Furies for vengeance in Act I and one of the most memorable exits in the third act, when she collapses in jealous rage. Soprano Millicent Scarlett was a powerhouse in this performance, although she seemed a little tenuous in the first act and really warmed up later.
Opera on DVD: "Idomeneo" (May 31, 2006)
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Opera Lafayette (February 13, 2006)
Opera Lafayette at La Maison Française (December 19, 2005)
Opera Lafayette at Hillwood (October 2, 2005)
Sacchini's Œdipe à Colone (May 15, 2005)
Lully's Acis et Galatée (February 22, 2005)
Opera Lafayette (January 23, 2005)
Mozart became acquainted with the famous Mannheim orchestra and many of its players during an earlier visit there. He included a few of the stock sonic effects for which the orchestra was famous, including a great example of the Mannheim Walze (rolls), a notorious long crescendo and decrescendo associated with the orchestra, at the end of one of the choral ballet numbers, and some fantastic brass swells in Elettra's final aria. His comfort with and knowledge of the individual players and singers helped him create a fine score, during this time in Munich which he described as one of the happiest in his life. The wildly positive reaction of the audience and the Elector of Bavaria to Idomeneo must be related to the promise that they heard in the score. If it were the best Mozart had composed, it would be an achievement, but of course he went on to immortal greatness. Still, in the quartetto Andrò ramingo e solo, sung here by four beautiful and well-matched (and well-rehearsed) voices, we hear the kernel of Mozart's greatest ensembles.
Next season, Opera Lafayette will perform a concert version of a favorite opera, Lully's Armide, in conjunction with Maryland Opera Studio's staged production of Gluck's Armide, which uses an adapted version of the same libretto. They are calling this the Armide Project. I think that Opera Lafayette should also perform the music for the court ballet Ballet de la délivrance de Renault (1617), a critical edition of which I am currently working on, and if they need a lecturer on the operatic life of the Armide story, I will be waiting by the phone.