Photo by Viaamse Opera, Annemie Augustijns
Haydn at the Bowl on one balmy night, Mozart at the Music Center on another: The segue between seasons here is less a meteorological matter than sartorial, and the transition this time has been unusually smooth.
Idomeneo comes laden with genius, and with problems. The title role sits uneasily in the repertory; it is the one Mozartian lead that can attract a supertenor without collapsing under his tonsils. Pavarotti and Domingo have both sung and recorded it; the last Idomeneo here — in a cutesy Maurice Sendak production in 1990 about which the less said the better — was the Wagnerian Siegfried Jerusalem. Domingo’s Idomeneo may be ready to abandon his throne, however, if last week’s performance on the Los Angeles Opera’s opening night is any judge. The heroic ring had severely faded, and so had the lovely lyricism. Domingo seems to have recognized this, since some 20 minutes of the opera, most of it the noble resignation as the deposed ruler relinquishes his realm to his son, had been cut. It’s a wise opera boss who knows his own score.
The opera represents Mozart’s final leap out of provincial captivity before moving on to his conquest of Viennese musical society. This curious hybrid represents the melding of his sublime genius for creating operatic human beings in full harmonic clothing and setting them to breathe within the archaic dramatic framework that enlists the aid of gods to resolve human dilemmas and expresses manly bravery in the soprano, coloratura vocal registers. These exasperating mechanisms had creaked to their demise in Handel’s time a generation before: above all the da capo (or cabbage twice-chewing) aria complete with final cadenza that occasions its hero or heroine to tread and then retread familiar ground in the cause of classical symmetry. As with Handel, we wait long hours for two characters to actually sing to one another instead of out to the audience or upward to the favoring zephyrs.
But how they sing! There is a phrase in the cadences of poor, put-upon Princess Ilia’s song to the breezes that starts the last act, and when that phrase floats in upon you, you just have to pick up the needle and play it again and again. It’s at times like this that you draw your comfort by knowing that Mozart will, in due time, come around to repeating that phrase; he, too, knew a good tune and a melting harmony when he heard them. Later in that act the Prince Idamante and the Princess Ilia finally get around to recognizing that they’re in love and have been for the last three or so hours, and so they sit on the ground — at least in Vera Calábria’s tidy staging — and sing about it, and that too is wonderful. Ten years from then, when Papa Geno and his Mama get together in a later opera and start making babies, perhaps Mozart remembered the delight that earlier duet had created.
Idomeneo is nevertheless hard to love. Nobody will ever satisfactorily explain the presence of the character known as Elettra, who is actually the same Electra who goes bonkers (and, presumably, dies of terminal ecstasy) at the end of the Richard Strauss opera — or the Sophocles drama, if you prefer — but turns up here to get in everybody’s way to no purpose, bestriding the stage, hurling forth brainless coloratura to establish herself as forerunner of the Queen of the Night To Come. The opera abounds in that kind of late-baroque foofaraw; the wonder is that Mozart and his librettist could light a path through it all, create a drama in which the dramatic strengths are so strong and so harrowingly beautiful that the moments of surrender to past usage become close to bearable. I am not ready to swallow whole the note I often come across, i.e., that “Idomeneo is the richest and most original of all the Mozart operas . . .” (as in the recent booklet with EMI’s Ian Bostridge recording). As a case study in survival, however, in preserving the glow of its genius through the encrustations of period usage, the work is some sort of miracle.
The failure of firmness and eloquence in the name role is, of course, a drawback, but the strengths of Idomeneo are various, and are on the whole nicely represented here in the elegant orchestral ensemble under Kent Nagano and the cumulative power of William Vendice’s chorus. Verónica Villarroel dines well on Elettra’s madness, if at times at the expense of Mozart’s melodic shapes, but I cannot deny her the evening’s biggest cheers, which she pulled down on opening night. More to my — and, I think, Mozart’s — taste were the beautifully matched Idamante and Ilia of Kate Aldrich and Adriana Damato, whose eventual coming together in that aforementioned duet is one of the memories I gladly took home on opening night.
Michael Vale’s set, from the Flanders Opera, is adequate in the best sense, a backdrop of several panels that catches Tina MacHugh’s lighting onto abstract shapes and opens to show the menacing God Neptune at climactic moments and a raked performing area down front: nothing more, nothing more needed. Calábria, an old Idomeneo hand (she worked on several productions with the legendary Jean-Pierre Ponnelle), moves the action simply and with a welcome lack of pretense. If this oversized almost-masterwork is going to reveal its genius and glide past its problem patches, let it be thus.
At the Bowl the season lumbers on. At the moment I ponder: Do I really want to sit through a symphony drawn from Lord of the Rings on those giant screens, or spend evenings with reality and my new DVD at home? Basically the video at the Bowl has been a farce and a fiasco. The use the video setup should be put to — information, names of songs, well-coordinated integration with players — would mount to hopeless expense in equipment and rehearsal time. Besides, who would want it? Who comes to the Bowl for that much education about the onstage goings-on? It would be interesting to learn how much of this was foreseen and discussed before those screens went up.
My favorite moment at the Bowl came two weeks ago when Nicholas McGegan was conducting Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. You know the place, don’t you — the Big Bang in the slow movement that gives the piece its name? Well, McGegan did the Bang, and it echoed off the nearby buildings as the Big Bangs have been doing all summer . . . And for all I know it may be echoing still.