Monday, October 20, 2008

Mozart's Idomeneo

San Francisco Opera, Oct. 15, 2008

One might consider Idomeneo a "connoisseur's opera." Giambattista Varesco's libretto is pretty much a slapped-together mess, and the dramatic pace crawls in comparison to Mozart's later works, but it's fascinating to see the progress the 25-year-old had made in reworking the conventions of opera seria (much influenced by the reforms of Gluck), and also how far he had come in developing his musical faculties.

The plot is an odd little amalgam. Take a Greek warrior mentioned briefly in the Iliad (Idomeneo), insert a command from Neptune to sacrifice a child (see Abraham and Isaac, Iphigenie), then sign a free agent, Electra, from the Sophocles United tragedy footballers club, just to add a little juice. Voila! A sort-of-Greek-tragic-opera.

Not that I'm complaining about that last addition. Spurned by the sacrificial son, Idamante, Electra goes on a rampage, and if her "storm aria," "Tutte nel cor vi sento," doesn't remind you of the Queen of the Night's "Der Holle Rache," you really should get out more often. The piece is delivered with all due fury by Georgian soprano Iano Tamar.

But the musical mix is also intriguing for the things we're not used to hearing from Mozart, especially the A-B-A aria form that brings the action to lengthy, albeit gorgeously musical, halts. You might even hear a few old-fashioned Handelian runs. But even within these confines, you can see the true Mozart developing, working on the concept that would centuries later be called "through-composing" - tying Electra's aria, for instance, into the following scene, a storm that wrecks Idomeneo's ship. (Afterwards, he vows to Neptune that he will kill the first person he sees on the beach as thanks for allowing him to survive - that's perfectly rational, right? - and who should be out beachcombing but his very own son, Idamante?)

San Francisco does a yeoman's job of providing the opera with every advantage enjoyed by more popular offerings - including some stellar voices. Tenor Kurt Streit lends power and presence to the title figure, endowing his passages with a superb sense of legato and portamento, particularly in the opera's best-known aria, "Fuor del mar." Performing the captive Trojan princess Ilia (another smuggled character, her name drawn from Troy's alternate designation, Ilium), Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier at first seems too understated, but the captivating sweetness of her tone draws the listener in, especially in her Act III aria, "Zeffiretti lusinghieri." (I keep mentally casting her as Figaro's Susanna, a role she has apparently not yet played.)

In the trouser role of Idamante, mezzo Alice Coote is pleasingly powerful, particularly in her opening aria, "Non ho colpa." Her strength compensates for her movements, which are not quite up to modern standards of manly verisimilitude (perhaps some chewing tobacco? Boxers?) SFO Adler Fellow Alek Shrader, meanwhile, exhibits a driving lyric tenor as the king's advisor, Arbace, notably in the Act II Allegro, "Se il tuo duol." The aria seems a bit much for an older supporting character, a quirk that derived from the tremendous ego of the role's originator, Domenico de Panzacchi. Shrader takes full advantage.

The production design of John Copley does a beautiful job of acknowleding the fragmented nature of the opera, beginning with the fragments of classical ruins that fly about John Conklin's sets. Costumer Michael Stennett joins the dialogue with classic Greek drapes and robes that feature foofy Enlightenment accessories, as if Mozart and the denizens of Crete were having a fashion war. Interesting to note that Ilia and Idamante, two characters much less given to Crete's religious superstitions, walk around in costumes completely contemporary to the composer. Idamante's golden waistcoat is particularly majestic.

As for Donald Runnicles and orchestra, I keep going back to the strings, which do a superb job of exhibiting the young composer's innovations, especially the soft rain of pizzicato in the final scene as Idomeneo invokes the presence of Neptune. Ian Robertson's chorus is also superb, especially in the sumblime Act II chorus "Placido e il mar, andiamo," a prayer for calm seas. The opera's ensemble pieces in general give a profound indication of things to come, notably the famed quartet "Andro, ramingo e solo," which travels in captivating sequences among Ilia, Idamante, Idomeneo and Electra.

Through Oct. 31, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $15-$290, 415/864-3330,

Photo: Soprano Genia Kuhmeier as Ilia. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

No comments: