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Opera Lafayette, "Idomeneo"

Performance in the Cour de Marbre at Versailles of Lully's Alceste, engraving by Lepautre, 1679Opera 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.

Conductor Ryan Brown, employing his trademark two-finger techniqueI 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.

Other Reviews:

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 (, June 6)
Musically, however, this production receives generally high marks, under the lilting, buoyant guidance of conductor Ryan Brown. The Opera Lafayette orchestra was supposedly playing on the same number of instruments as used at the premiere and on versions of them similar to those used at the time. The result, as usual, is an instrumental scale appropriate to the singers in this kind of intimate space, so they do not have to do much to force the vocal production. The players are all specialists on these difficult and sometimes unpredictable instruments, and the playing was tasteful and almost free of blemish. (Minor ensemble problems surfaced at points, as some sections of the opera sounded more thoroughly rehearsed than others.) The two flutes have an exquisite, spectral sound, outpacing their colleagues on the oboes, who were good except for occasional lapses (there were a few in the violins, too). The brass were generally excellent, with a few splats in the horns. My only question is where are the trombones that are supposed to accompany the supernatural La Voce of Neptune? The scene can hardly be a tribute to Gluck (and Monteverdi before him) with only horns and woodwinds.

Members of the New York Baroque Dance Company perform Mozart's 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.

Also on Ionarts:

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)
We last heard tenor Robert Breault (Idomeneo) in Washington Concert Opera's Esclarmonde. He has a strong voice with lovely high notes that he can sing softly or loudly, as at the end of his first aria and in the cadenza to a high C D in his Act II aria. At the same time, he has a masticatory style of Italian diction, chewing on some words and sometimes scooping up to notes. It is also not a particularly agile voice, as we heard on the few melismatic passages. Company favorites Robert Baker and Tony Boutté did fine work as the High Priest and Arbace, respectively. Bass François Loup sang much of the night in the chorus and then prophesied from on high, in the balcony, as the voice of Neptune (but sadly not with trombones).

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.


Garth Trinkl said...

Part of the problem was that we had all of the music, but not enough of the spectacle.

Charles, my understanding and experience, from Friday's pre-performance discussion and my own aural memory, is that the score here was cut from its full length version; and that the cuts, especially to several of the longer arias including that following the recognition scene, were ones that Mozart had been forced to make in order not to bore the Munich audiences which expected dinner as well as (humanist) amusement. I recall Mr Brown noting on Friday that "much beautiful music" was sacrified in preparing this production, which incorporated Mozart's original dance music -- as well as Mozart's own cuts.

I will agree with you that, as lovely as the dancing was as reimagined by Catherine Turocy and her fine troupe, all of this effort might have been better put toward as full, or even semi-staged, dramatic production (perhaps at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and with funding from the so-called Catherine Reynolds Kennedy Center 'Endowment for Artistic Excellence').

Such a fuller dramatic presentation might include all of the dramatic music and dance music that Mozart wrote, or perhaps might incorporate fewer of the cuts and fewer of the dances to accomodate Washington tastes. (My understanding is that when William Christie brings his superb Baroque opera reconstructions to Brooklyn, but not Washington, he is importing the musically complete reconstructions, as viewed in Paris; but, Charles, you should be more of an expert on the provenance of the Christie imports than I am.)

Lastly, when in a rare highly special evening, I attended Mozart's Idomeneo with my parents in San Francisco four or five summers ago, we experienced what I believe was the complete Mozart score, with no cuts to arias or recitatives. The addition of the superb, quasi-eighteenth century staging and superb singing, made the production one of the best that I have seen at the SFO in the past two decades. I do remember it being a very long -- but sublime -- evening of Mozart's early musico-dramatic genius.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for your comment. I think it is implied, but perhaps not strongly enough, that what was given here was "complete" in the sense that it was everything that was performed at the Munich premiere. Everything that Mozart left out was left out. It is a beautiful opera, no doubt, and I have no problem with its length, but not everyone sees it that way.

Clayton Koonce said...

Charles: I'm guessing from your mention of the downpour that you attended Friday night's performance. Saturday night apparently had a more generous and alert audience. The house remained quite full, as far as I could tell from my seat in the middle orchestra section. The applause at the ending was generous, and the full cast, including dancers, did come back out on the stage for at least a second bow. This probably is a difficult opera to sit through without full staging, but coming to it for my first time, I found the music to be very rewarding. I am eager also to see more from the NY Baroque Dance Company in future--they were wonderful to watch. Surpised that you complain about the monster: I liked the stylized approach employed with the dancers, but I wonder what the Company's director found in her research of iconography regarding portrayal of the beast. About the missing trombones: In last night's panel discussion, Ryan Brown explained that Mozart's sponsor persuaded him to drop the trombones from the score, because he considered them too expensive for such a short scene. I suppose that Opera Lafayette could have used them, but it seems they were adhering to the scoring of the original production as much as possible.

Charles T. Downey said...

Clayton, thanks for the explanation about the trombones. I wish that Ryan Brown had decided instead to let Mozart have what he wanted. I love those trombones and with Loup's voice booming from the balcony, it would have been eerie indeed.

Charles T. Downey said...

Jay, thanks for the correction, which is always appreciated. Well, if Breault sang that form of the aria, there is no excuse not to have the trombones!