Last night I attended the Metropolitan Opera’s 61st performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo – the opera recently canceled by the Deutsche Oper Berlin for fear of Islamic terrorists – in the drab, slow, unimaginative original production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle from 1982. But more about that later.
The singing was at a respectably high level. Though the title role’s tessitura is unusually baritonal for Mozart, Ben Heppner sang the part’s few high notes with ease and ringing tone; unfortunately, his is a rather monochromatic interpretation. While he tackled the more florid original version of Idomeneo’s big aria “Fuor del mar” with impressive and accurate coloratura – especially for the world’s pre-eminent Tristan – overall his phrasing was not particularly sensitive or expressive. The truth is, the qualities that make him a sturdy Wagnerian – bright tone and stamina – are insufficient for the more subtle demands of Mozart.
Dorothea Röschmann as Ilia, on the other hand, was superb. Hers is a meatier voice than has been associated with this part: she sings the Countess and Elvira, instead of Susanna and Zerlina. Her long opening recitative was impassioned and vibrant, and she is capable of easy lyrical singing as well as husky, full-throated chest tones. She was ably partnered by Kristine Jepson as the prince Idamante. Though not as vital an actress as Röschmann, she has a lovely warm, even tone and phrases delicately.
Olga Makarina, as Elettra, also possesses a beautiful voice, capable of impressively gentle, silvery sustained phrases, which served her well in the second act serenade; however, her lighter vocal resources were overpowered by the demands of her first and last arias. At times I wished she and Röschmann had switched parts.
As Idomeneo’s counselor Arbace, Jeffrey Francis sang his aria “Se il tuo duol” with immaculate coloratura and a ringing top; Simon O’Neill was a grand, old-school High Priest, with a crystalline declamatory style in the best Pavarotti tradition; someone needs to tell Stephen Milling, as the Voice of Neptune, not to double single consonants.
James Levine in the pit continues to refine his performance of this marvelous score; the Met Chorus was fabulous in the earth-shaking “O voto tremendo,” but there were problems with balance and blend earlier on.
In my post on the severed-head fiasco with the Berlin production, I got into a discussion in the comments section over making operas relevant for modern audiences. Idomeneo is about the moral choices we face when our city is attacked by a sea monster sent by a god we disobeyed.
Of course, there are themes that could resonate for audiences today: the humane treatment of prisoners of war, and the trouble that comes from leaders who choose to do what’s easy instead of what’s right. I’m not sure how Jesus’ severed head serves to illuminate any of that.
The Ponnelle production makes precisely zero attempt at modern relevance. Actually, it’s anti-relevance: the staging is meant to evoke the kind of stylized representation that an audience of Mozart’s day might have seen. It’s a valid idea, but in execution it falls flat. The park-and-bark aria delivery can be excused when the singing is ravishing (and honestly, when Ilia is sitting there singing about “gentle breezes,” you don’t have a way to make that exciting), but much of the chorus staging is execrable. The second act ends with the rousing “Corriamo, fuggiamo” – “Run, flee!” In this staging, they all slowly spread themselves out on the stage and lie down as the curtain falls. What part of “Run away from the sea monster!” didn’t Ponnelle understand?