11 May 2013

Frankfurt's Intriguing Idomeneo

Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.

Never mind that the not-to-be-ignored ‘interpretations’ had to be ‘different’ at all costs; or that (often rankling) ‘insider’ concepts by groupie-inspiring-directors had to be explained (if indeed that were possible) with extensive program notes; or that decent enough singers were sometimes secondary to the buzz-worthy ‘event.’ The city opera house on the Main River was a place to see and be seen, challenge and be challenged.

And then prime movers and shakers moved out, and the company seemed shaken indeed not only by those high profile departures, but also by devastating budget cuts in the last Time of Austerity. They almost cut the chorus entirely, for crying out loud! What followed was a well-intended but languishing period when the company’s productions unwillingly digressed from ‘shock and awe’ to ‘schlock and awful’ on more than a few occasions.

But happily in recent seasons, the old rebel spark is decidedly back in force (mercifully moderated by common sense), the overall quality of the singers is once again high, and the half-hearted air that seemed to inhabit nearly a decade of shows has lifted. Witness their new, modern dress, cogent spin on Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo which is extremely well-served by its wholly comprehensible Konzept.

Stage Director Jan Philipp Gloger has set out to actually tell the story (*gasp*) while informing it with a contemporary resonance. War references feature soldiers that could have come out of today’s conflicts. Karin Jud’s costumes successfully define the aristocrats and refugees/prisoners in modern terms, and the Naval uniforms ably establish a hierarchy of a military (and political) chain of command. Mr. Gloger’s intentions have been well-served by a collaborative set design (Franziska Bornkamm) that is at once blissfully simple and wonderfully varied thanks to the ingenious use of Frankfurt’s massive turntable. Bearing a huge white wall with massive double doors that bisects up-stage from down-, it rotates frequently to reveal ever more interesting “rooms” in Idomeneo’s realm. The space is effectively re-defined with well-chosen set pieces that include a desk, Nautilus set, hospital bed, podium, press conference set-up, catafalque and more.

The director has blocked the action to facilitate highly detailed character relationships, and has made full use of the vast playing space with well-motivated and dramatically telling movement. Gloger masterfully uses diverse levels and groupings, witness the stylized ‘group hug’ by title character, Idamante, Ilia and Elettra in the great quartet. Too, the dramatic tension between Ilia and various others was physicalized in unusually contentious, even brutal confrontations. Exciting stuff.

Only the transition to the shore left me wanting something more. It was all well and good to have the massive wall disappear into the flies, and I accepted the modern suitcases littered about like toppled gravestones. But as the bits of ‘flotsam and jetsam’ were blown onstage by hidden fans, did the strands of debris have to be black, sparkly cuttings from a slit plastic glitter curtain? Not damaging, but it seemed at odds with other more sober scenic effects. The whole evening’s story telling was exceptionally well-lit by Jan Hartmann with well tightly crafted specials, atmospheric gel colors, good area washes and excellent focus of the action.

All in all, the staging made absolute sense within its chosen convention. I loved introducing Idamante as a boy given a toy boat by Idomeneo in a flashback. When the adult Idamante then bounded on stage he was first still carrying the boat, which spoke volumes about his youthfulness, his unconditional love for his father, and his place in succession to the throne as a future naval hero. The presentation of Idomeneo as a war veteran, first on crutches and later in a wheelchair had great meaning. And having his suffering require sedation and confinement to a hospital bed set up one of the show’s best and most mysterious effects.

For the sacrifice of Idamante, a stunning backdrop gets pulled in depicting a site crowded with ancient ruins. When it comes time for Idomeneo to kill his son, it is the boy-extra who enters and mouths the words as the adult Idamante sings upstage. For a while, it all seems disorienting until. . .it is all cunningly revealed to have been a drug-induced hallucination by the hospitalized hero. This proved a real stunner of an interpretive twist, an absolutely honest one that injected truthful spontaneity into what can be a stilted theatrical moment.

The huge revolving wall also facilitated/masked some amazing “dissolves,” such as when the entire chorus seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving an empty press conference room at the end. Or when Idomeneo’s negative fantasy of Ilia and Idamante is revealed as a steamy sex scene with the two in bed together, only to have vanished when the setting came back ‘round.

Misfires? Yeah, a couple moments might be re-considered like Idomeneo’s very brief attempted rape of Ilia. Or having the boy-as-sacrifice mouth every single word Idamante sings off stage rather than simply having the boy gesture. Or Elettra’s powder blue business suit that rendered her unnecessarily matronly, with an unflattering wig that she ripped off a couple of times. But these were quite minor distractions in what was a pretty terrific take on Mozart’s dramatic masterpiece.

Best of all, Frankfurt peopled this inventive production with a truly first rate cast of singing actors. The title role is surely the best, and most difficult tenor role Mozart ever created. It has severely tested any number of first-string performers over the years, but it seemed to hold no terror for the resourceful Roberto Saccà. Having begun his career as a light tenor, in the intervening years Mr. Saccà has imbued his refulgent tone with a good deal of weight, resulting in a robust, even delivery. The trade-off is that the youthful sweetness in his mid-lower range tends to become a mite tremulous when pressed, but the pay-off is that his meaty high notes soar. His fiercely accurate, propulsive rendition of Fuor del mar was downright definitive.

Elsa van den Heever is not only a house favorite, she has been branching out to conquer hearts with major companies throughout the world (the latest with her recent Met debut). The diva’s praiseworthy spinto was a good match for Elettra, and while she could zing out a phrase with aplomb, she could also scale back her tone to a filigree of melting beauty. Her superlative way with serene utterances were all prelude to a powerfully demented fury that she unleashed with her showpiece D’Oreste d’Ajace.

Juanita Lascarro was the darkest-voice Ilia I have yet encountered, which added an interesting dynamic to the musical texture. Ms. Lascarro proved a spirited persona dominating her every scene, although her impassioned delivery found her forcefully trilling her “r’s” a bit too much for my taste. Given that she slightly covers her voice, the result was that Juanita had an admirable way with legato phrases and could float high notes that were very affecting. That said, when she pressed the top more powerfully, forte notes tended to spread.

Martin Mitterutzner was a revelation as a fresh-voiced, fresh-faced Idamanate. Lanky and boyishly handsome, Mr. Mitterutzner complemented his committed acting with a robust lyric tenor that had power and style. Company member Julien Prégardien displayed all his familiar strengths (uncanny musicianship, gently pleasing tone, and clean melismas) and an occasional weakness (the very top notes don’t turn over and get a bit straight), but his seasoned delivery as Arbace was a success.

Young Beau Gibson showed off an exceptionally pleasing, youthful tone married to a witty impersonation as the High Priest. As Neptune, lean and wiry actor Olaf Reinecke seemed to meld the Ancient Mariner and Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street) in equal parts, as he lurked, menaced, proffered weapons, and generally behaved doggone unpleasantly. The four soloists (Cretans and Trojans) drawn from the Frankfurt chorus were all uniformly fine: Camilla Suzana Peteu, Thomas Charrois, Yvonne Hettegger, and Pere Llompart. Their winning featured moments speak well for the quality and depth of the vocal ensemble who excelled under Chorus Master Matthias Köhler’s tutelage.

In the pit Julia Jones elicited exciting results from the resident orchestra. For once the rather dry acoustic was a plus, as the individual colors of the instruments were highlighted without taking away from a smooth, clean, well-oiled ensemble. Perhaps there was nothing radically revelatory about Maestra Jones’s straightforward interpretation, but she hit all the musical marks, the drama was always well served, and the singers were superbly partnered.

Having visited Frankfurt Opera happily and often during the ten years I lived there, what a joy it was to re-live (and perhaps reclaim) the ‘glory days’ with this inspired, well-crafted performance.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Idomeneo: Roberto Saccà; Idamante: Martin Mitterutzner; Ilia: Juanita Lascarro; Elettra: Elsa van den Heever; Arbace: Julian Prégardien; Neptune’s High Priest: Beau Gibson; Voice: Philipp Alexander Mehr; Neptune: Olaf Reinecke; Two Cretans: Camilla Suzana Peteu, Thomas Charrois; Two Trojans: Yvonne Hettegger, Pere Llompart; Conductor: Julia Jones; Stage Director: Jan Philipp Gloger; Set Design: Franziska Bornkamm; Costume Design: Karin Jud; Lighting Design: Jan Hartmann; Chorus Master: Matthias Köhler