Sunday, March 26, 2017

Those crazy Greeks!

On Saturday I saw the Live in HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's Idomeneo, a revival of the 1982 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production. I found it thrilling, not least because dear Maestro James Levine was in the pit. I am always touched by the tremendous ovation that showers Mr. Levine the moment he arises, almost god-like, from within the bowels of the Met to sit at the podium. (In the broadcast we could see the remarkable elevator device bringing him and his wheelchair into position from below.) In interviews singers sometimes talk of the almost sacred experience of working and performing with Mr. Levine, and I believe it.

Your intrepid reporter actually saw this production in 1982, while on a college choir tour. At age 19 (go ahead—do the math), sitting in the Family Circle, ignorant of the amazing work I was witnessing, I was more excited about simply being at the Met than about the opera. Since then I have seen several productions of Idomeneo, and I sang chorus in the Greater Miami Opera's 1990 production. My appreciation has grown immensely. Hence my joy at seeing this production again, even if budgetary concerns force me to see it in HD rather than in the house.

Nadine Sierra and Alice Coote
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
From the get-go we see what makes this work and this production amazing. The single set shows steps representative of rocks and cliffs, and an ever-present image of Neptune, ready to destroy one and all at his whim. Although employing opera seria conventions, which can sometimes lead to difficulty in portraying drama adequately, this Idomeneo hasn't a single dull moment. The action flows smoothly, and the acting of the four principals kept audience interest at all times.

Opera requires conflict, and Idomeneo offers plenty. Idomeneo, King of Crete, was forced to offer to Neptune the sacrifice of the first person he sees upon his safe return from the wars in Troy. That person turns out to be his son Idamante. The young Trojan princess Ilia, prisoner of war, is conflicted about her love for Idamante. Fortunately Idamante loves her, too, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth the two end up together. Sorry if that's a spoiler. And Elettra (Elektra), having finished her own opera, has come to Crete to stir up trouble, and has decided she wants Idamante for herself. Not knowing of Idamante's love for Ilia, Idomeneo tries to resolve his sacrificial victim dilemma by ordering Idamante to accompany Elettra on her journey home. Hilarity ensues. Well, if not hilarity, much amazing singing.

Elza van den Heever as Elettra
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Every singer will tell you that Mozart requires the finest vocal technique, for without it his music is nearly impossible to sing! This cast did not disappoint. A beautiful and nuanced performance of the overture transitioned immediately into Ilia's stunning aria Padre, germani, addio, sung with great feeling and sensitivity by Nadine Sierra. Ms. Sierra's singing never failed to please, with its free and even sound throughout, and she portrayed Ilia's vulnerability and strength quite well. She was this reporter's favorite among an exceptionally fine cast of singers. Elza van den Heever was also amazing as Elettra. We witnessed the same fiery temperament and dazzling singing (and ability to negotiate a raked stage in a costume the size of a city block) that so impressed us as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, with Mozart's even greater technical demands. Ms. van den Heever gave us Elettra's madness and arrogance while singing her torturous vocal lines with apparent ease.

Alice Coote sang Idamante's difficult vocal lines quite skillfully (the role was originally written for a castrato in a soprano range), and looked very much the part of a sturdy young prince, ready to take on the world. Her dynamic shading, particularly her pianissimo singing, was quite impressive. Matthew Polenzani was a fine Idomeneo, showing the king's emotional turmoil and singing the challenging music well. One does wonder, however, why the Met didn't use the 1786 Vienna version of the aria Fuor del mar, which has considerably fewer coloratura demands than the original version, from its 1781 Munich premiere.

One also wondered about the casting of baritone Alan Opie in the tenor role of Arbace. Mr. Opie's credits include Figaro, Rigoletto, Sharpless, and Don Alfonso. Arbace is usually sung by the sort of tenor who would sing Tamino or Don Ottavio. This was not a successful bit of casting, in this reporter's humble opinion.

It should surprise no one that the Metropolitan Opera Chorus performed at its usual stellar standard, as did the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Mr. Levine's subtle hand was evident throughout this performance. One is very sorry this was the last performance of Idomeneo, for it deserves repeated viewing.
Full company of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Idomeneo
Photo:  Metropolitan Opera

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