21 Oct 2008

Idomeneo in San Francisco

Munich in 1781 was hardly the big city, not an enlightened Paris where Gluck had recently turned the opera world on its ear, not a European capital like Vienna where Italian operatic imperialism was unassailable.

But Munich was certainly aware of operatic life in the big city, and did its best to compete, doing so by the commission of an opera called Idomeneo to a bright young composer, an ascending star, W.A. Mozart.

Idamante1.pngAlice Coote as Idamante

No one would know then that this little opera with its big aspirations could become a mainstay of current big house repertory, though truth to tell it sits there a little uncomfortably. While it has the big chorus scenes Paris loved, even the sine qua non ballet that opera companies do not even attempt these days, not to mention the scenic spectacular that universally wows, it inevitably also has the Mozart genius that goes well beyond these old opera stories and their splendid vocalism. It is music that heads straight for the heart and the mind. The Marriage of Figaro is just beyond the horizon (five years away) as immediately after Idomeneo Mozart begins exploring the more nuanced world of comedy first with a singspiel and then two small, unfinished buffa’s.

But meanwhile the serious Idomeneo is built on an already dead operatic irony. To save his own life Idomeneo must sacrifice another life, and to save his people he really has to do so, even though Idamante, his son and his victim, has saved the people from the terrible sea monster that Neptune unleashed when Idomeneo was reluctant. Opera seria is big and bold and improbable. Rossini would again make it so only a few years later, but not the Mozart of Idomeneo, a valiant child of the Enlightenment.

This early Mozart indulges the women who love Idamante in delicate and passionate personal expressions of their love. Mozart places his father in quiet, deep torment, and even his son (in Mozart’s Munich the castrato Vicenzo dal Prato) voices real grief in his often above-the-staff, male-soprano showpiece. And these are only the seeds of discovery for the exposition of human souls in his greatest masterpieces, the Da Ponte comedies — these Idomeneo creations soon enough will become his Countess and Elvira, his Count and his tongue-in-cheek castrato, Cherubino.

IdomeneoArbace.pngKurt Streit (Idomeneo) and Alek Shrader (Arbace)

San Francisco is no longer the big city operatically speaking, certainly not the New York of the renewed Met, or even Munich for that matter, and in the case of the current edition of Idomeneo, San Francisco does not even try to compete with big operatic thinkers, as it did in the 1977 when Jean Pierre Ponnelle made the first San Francisco Idomeneo. Instead San Francisco Opera dusted off its twenty year-old John Copley production, cast it with relatively unknown stars-in-the-making, and entrusted it to the broad musicality of its music director, Donald Runnicles.

The Copley production does indeed provide a comfortable background for this minor Mozart masterpiece. Its settings designed by John Conklin delicately reference antiquity, its costumes coolly incorporate tunics and togas for its choruses with rich, courtly seventeenth century dress for its protagonists. Mr. Copley makes his actors’ movements flow with the music in naturalistic ways, motions that are continuously choreographed, that echo the naturalness of the music rather than illustrate or impose the artificiality of the opera seria genre. Mr. Conklin’s visual images flow in the same fashion, seemingly in continuous movement as the aria follows aria. The entirety of the staging was like a beautiful wallpaper that surrounds voice and music.

Maestro Runnicles brought the entire second act to a timeless, sublime musicality, the departure trio dangling its hopes and fears, the arias melting with emotion. The great third act quartet unfolded grandly, then four graphically magnificent horses rose gracefully from the sea (masking any sort of terrifying sea monster). And the music never faltered. Well, only once — a small moment of real drama when the cue for the deus ex machina was a trifle late and we all had a fleeting moment to laugh at the ridiculousness of such things. This evening in toto was like a perfect recording, we knew the music need never end.

Tenor Kurt Streit provided a fine Idomeneo, his well-produced, clear voice able to encompass the huge range of emotions inherent in this difficult role. The Idamante of mezzo-soprano Alice Coote amply filled the musical, vocal and even histrionic needs of this complex role, a perfect Idamante for this Copley exercise in musical flow. Genia K├╝hmeier sang beautifully as Ilia, glorious pianissimos flowing into passionate outpourings. Even the smaller scale of the spurned Electra of Iano Tamar seemed perfectly at home in the calm flow of this production. Bass Robert MacNeil was adequate as the High Priest of Neptune, less so the Arbace of Adler fellow Alek Shrader.

Michael Milenski