Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A memorable Idomeneo

Neptune makes his presence known in Idomeneo, re di Creta. Photos by Charles Erickson.

It isn't often that a Mozart work feels like a discovery. But Idomeneo, re di Creta, his first major opera, feels a bit like one, as it's long been overshadowed by the later masterpieces, and has only slowly made its way into the standard repertoire. Indeed, what's more intriguing about Ideomeneo is that over its course, you can almost hear Mozart discovering himself. Written when the wunderkind was only 24, the piece opens as a lovely, but standard-issue, "opera seria" (the leading mode of Mozart's day), with that format's usual choruses, noble solos, and tragic tone.

But slowly Idomeneo - which is basically a variant on the Iphigenia myth - edges away from tragedy and toward something more like mournful comedy; and Mozart begins to spin more duets and quartets as a lighter, yet more mature moral sensibility seeps into the proceedings. And somehow a mysterious alchemy occurs. By the final curtain, we can tell we're listening to the revolutionary who would write Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

This sense of discovery is redoubled when one considers the recent history of Boston Lyric Opera, which is presenting a beautiful and well-sung (if slightly trimmed) version of the opera through this weekend: slowly Boston has been discovering it, too. I've been arguing for some time that BLO - long derided as a suburban upstart - is actually our next Boston-Ballet-like success story, and Idomeneo serves, I think, as a ratification of that claim, the capstone to a startling season which has included such memorable productions (and superb vocal ensembles) as The Turn of the Screw and Ariadne auf Naxos.

Although no, the production's not perfect; in fact, it has a weakness right at its center. As the title character, Jason Collins is vocally adequate but not much more - and dramatically he seems to lean more toward fits of pique than conscience-stricken remorse (to preserve his life in a violent storm, Idomeneo has promised Neptune to sacrifice the first person he encounters on shore; that person turns out to be his son, Idamante).

Fortunately there's sterling work elsewhere in the cast. As Idamante (a breeches role), the lovely Sandra Piques Eddy struck just the right heroic profile, and what's more, her pure-tone mezzo proved luminously flexible, thanks to her utterly secure technique. Alas, as Idamante's love interest, Camille Zamora (at left, with Eddy) seemed slightly miscast, though she was generally appealing. Or perhaps the trouble was that she was simply upstaged by the great Caroline Worra as her rival, the spurned Elettra. Worra is blessed with a beautifully burnished timbre, and threw herself into her role with abandon, at times even teetering on the edge of comedy - she made Elettra's final meltdown one for the vocal and dramatic history books.

Elsewhere bass Craig Phillips offered a Neptune (suddenly revealed from the person of a pauper, at top) whose voice seemed as deep as the sea, and the chorus was in robust form throughout. In the pit, conductor David Angus led the orchestra with energy, although he had decided to mix a fortepiano (rather than a harpsichord) and period horns with a generally-modern ensemble. The results were not displeasing, although to an ear accustomed to period performance they sometimes sounded oddly mixed, neither fish nor fowl. But maybe that was the idea - to give this transitional opera a sense of musical transition, too.

Likewise, director Lilian Groag seemed to want to gently push the drama down the road we all knew Mozart would eventually go: toward a vision of gracefully balanced worldliness - toward the Enlightenment, if you will. Thus she framed the central drama of the opera as a play-within-a-play, put on by rustic villagers amid the ruins of a heroic past. Several reviewers didn't seem to get the point of this, but I have to admit, they had half a point themselves - Mozart puts this idea over just fine all by himself. Still, a few of Groag's interpolations struck me as truly inspired - having Neptune speak from the mouth of a pauper, for instance, summed up with beautiful economy a central tenet of Mozart's art: that the divine spark is in all of us. And at any rate it was wonderful to perceive in the direction an awareness of Mozart's larger political and dramatic meaning; would more local productions had this one's level of intellectual ambition. After all, Mozart (with his great librettist, Da Ponte) went further than Shakespeare ever did in transposing, and adjusting, our idea of nobility to the dimensions of actual humanity. This is the message of his life itself - that of a bourgeois genius who had to endure being literally kicked in the ass by various vacuous nobles - and you can feel its democratizing pressure in embryo, as it were, in Idomeneo.

But it must also be said that much of the power of this version derived from its physical production, including a truly stunning set by John Conklin (via a Glimmerglass production of, yes, Iphigenia), beautifully coordinated costumes by Constance Hoffmann, and even more evocative lighting by Robert Wierzel. I must say that after seeing his work here - and after last year's Rusalka - I'd have to rate Mr. Wierzel among the greatest lighting designers alive; his effects in Idomeneo seemed to literally radiate from the ancient columns of the set itself. Like much of this production, their luminous beauty lingered in the memory.