Opera can get pretty damn nasty: hatred, treachery, home-wrecking lust, ridiculous codes of honor, innocent people being made into sacrificial victims. And I’m not talking just about what goes on backstage—the onstage shenanigans are even more scandalous. If the opera world adopted the Hollywood rating system, most of the standard rep would earn a nice fat NC-17.
Then there’s Mozart. You don’t get much better than that guy when it comes to writing opera, but whaddaya know, his works are all about compassion and forgiveness, not body counts. No matter what cynical pranks, decadent aristocrats, or metaphysical threats his heroes and heroines may be up against, they’re rewarded not with a sword in the intestines, but with enlightenment and newfound maturity. And when punishment has to be meted out, it tends to fit the crime.
The composer’s first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo, written when he was 24, is textbook Mozart. It’s an opera seria—one of a dusty genre of stately plots, formal arias, and characters drawn from antiquity that was already lumbering toward extinction as Mozart composed this work—but it’s enlivened by the emotional immediacy and generosity of spirit that inform his great comic operas. Sure, his audiences had a jones for happy endings. (The 18th century, remember, was the period when Shakespeare’s tragedies were rewritten so that, say, Romeo and Juliet could live long and prosper after the final curtain.) But Mozart didn’t settle for a mere upswing in the denouement: Sunlight filters through even the darkest familial upheavals and oracular forebodings in the story, until it positively floods the final scene.
The Washington Opera’s current production of Idomeneo is its first in four decades, so the company has imported a production that’s been a fixture at the Met for 20 years. Originally a vehicle for Luciano Pavarotti, it’s become Placido Domingo’s territory in recent years, and he brings his seasoned portrayal of the title role to WashOp, surrounding it with a cast of talented up-and-comers.
But the real star of the show is
director-designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose work has been adapted for this revival by stage director David Kneuss. Ponnelle, who died in 1988, was the enfant terrible who created tempests in quite a few teapots during the ’70s with night-of-the-living-dead stagings such as The Flying Dutchman at the Met and La Traviata at WashOp. (Does anyone remember, in the latter, Catherine Malfitano’s cadaverous Violetta dining on her own body and toasting spectral party guests during Act 1?)
Late in his career, Ponnelle turned increasingly to operas from the 17th and 18th centuries, finding less flashy but no less provocative ways of deconstructing them for the stage. Idomeneo is set in Crete just after the Trojan War. In this production, the setting becomes an Age of Enlightenment fantasy of antiquity, with backdrops of 18th-century architectural drawings juxtaposed against a stage-filling set of classical ruins—ruins, mind you, the way they looked in Mozart’s day, rather than the complete structures these characters would presumably have inhabited. Characters who are not directly involved in the onstage action are often seen striking elaborate poses—ritualized tableaux of grief and longing—attired in an amalgam of 18th-century fashion, togas, and ancient forms of armor. Ponnelle makes us look at Idomeneo’s world through Mozart’s eyes, then look at Mozart’s world through our own, finding fresh truths in hoary old conventions.
But what engaged Ponnelle most was the opera’s mythological core. Idomeneo, which might just as well be titled Waiting for Neptune, has one of those rare opera plots that can be summarized in a nutshell: King Idomeneo of Crete survives a storm at sea by promising Neptune that, in return for his life, he’ll sacrifice the first man he meets onshore. That man turns out to be his son Idamante, and when Idomeneo refuses to kill him, Neptune’s wrath descends upon the king’s people. Only an eleventh-hour act of divine mercy restores peace in the land.
Ponnelle made good and sure that Neptune dominates the opera. Seaweed and algae dot the saltwater-pitted steps and columns leading up to a stage-height stone mask of the sea god—hair wild and knotted up with marine detritus, the stone below the eyes rutted as if carved by ceaseless streams of tears, mouth gaping in a permanent outcry. (In a brilliant bit of stage imagery, that mouth disgorges Idomeneo and his sailors onto the beach following the shipwreck.) The audience isn’t allowed to forget Neptune’s gruesome mug: It either lives directly upstage or flashes through those neat-and-tidy perspective-drawing drops with the power of a childhood nightmare. Mozart’s music tells us that transcendent happiness is just around the next corner, but Ponnelle’s set reminds us just how daunting the obstacles to that happiness are.
What saves his Idomeneo from being merely an exercise in historical revisionism and visual razzle-dazzle, though, is Ponnelle’s attention to the human drama. The blocking here may be as archly stylized as the faux-marble sets and the millennia-spanning costumes, but there’s never any doubt that life-and-death situations are playing themselves out. Ponnelle had a knack for bringing vivid performances out of his singers, and at WashOp, Kneuss deserves credit for applying the lively dramatic sense that informed the original production to a fresh-faced new cast. His job is made that much easier by singers with solid dramatic instincts and lovely voices.
Not to sound like a broken record, but as the opera’s title character, Domingo astonishes once again, this time as much for stylistic reasons as for purely vocal ones. His sound is a more robust one than we usually hear in Mozart, but he phrases with a grace and suppleness that feel entirely natural in the idiom. Yes, the faster-moving passages sound marginally more effortful at this late stage of Domingo’s career, though that’s of little consequence: The stream of warm, focused, passionate tone is more than enough compensation, and he knows how to use that beautiful voice to involve us in the drama.
Ditto for his acting, which is poised, consistent, and understated, not to mention regal in an un-self-conscious way. There’s something gratifying and quite moving in watching Domingo play a character close to his own age: The careworn father with an Atlas-worthy weight of guilt on his shoulders is brought palpably to life here. Idomeneo’s final moment, when Neptune releases him from his fateful bargain and relieves him of his command, brings a gradually widening smile that illuminates Domingo’s furrowed features and must count as one of the loveliest moments he’s produced onstage.
With the exception of Valeriano Lanchas’ handsomely intoned, if brief, offstage contribution as the bass-toned Neptune, Domingo’s is actually the lowest voice in the production. The roles of the High Priest and Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace are taken by two fine tenors whose lighter lyric voices contrast nicely with Domingo’s tenor. Robert Baker conveys authority without undue tonal weight as the High Priest, and, as Arbace, WashOp regular Corey Evan Rotz does some of his most distinguished work. Half the age Arbace should be (think of him as Crete’s senior political adviser), Rotz doesn’t fall into the trap of enfeebling his voice to suggest advanced years. Singing with forthright tone and expressive energy, he makes something unusually memorable out of a fairly forgettable part.
But as fine as the men are, this opera belongs to voices a bit higher in the stratosphere. Mozart wrote Idamante as a castrato part for the Munich premiere, rewriting it in the tenor range for a later Vienna performance. As much as the tenor option is desirable from the standpoint of dramatic credibility, nothing beats the higher option in Mozart’s ethereal ensemble writing. Because castrati are (we can only hope) an extinct breed these days, Idamante is usually treated as a “trouser” role for mezzo-sopranos, who have the thankless task of butching it up for the sake of the story while floating unmistakably feminine high notes for the sake of the score.
No one’s going to confuse the lovely American mezzo Jossie Perez for a guy. But her warmly communicative, immensely likable Idamante is convincing nonetheless, the son’s yearning for reconnection with his father touchingly conveyed. And Perez’s shimmering, agile voice is wonderfully responsive to both text and score—light enough to maneuver through the florid writing, yet full-toned enough to underpin the music and contrast with the other women in the cast.
The showiest role in the piece is Elettra—that’s right, Agamemnon’s daughter, whose post-Oresteia husband hunt has led her to the unrequiting Idamante’s doorstep. It seems that, deep down, she’s the white-picket-fence type, if someone would just give her a chance. Of course, this is a love-struck girl trapped in a borderline psychotic’s body; what sentimental moments she has seem mere breathers between fits of homicidal jealousy. It’s a part often cast with over-the-hill screamers or Valkyries on their nights off from Valhalla. Cynthia Lawrence’s pliable, attractive soprano, by contrast, is a pleasure to hear, offering the edge required to get the tingle factor going, but not so much as to spoil the arching line of her voice. She serves up the part with a dollop of camp, making Elettra almost, but not quite, into a comic villainess. That’s OK, though: She’s entertaining, she rarely overdoes the Mommie Dearest mugging, and, really, the role can take it.
Lawrence provides a perfect foil for the good-girl role of Ilia, the captured Trojan princess betrothed to Idamante, here taken by the marvelous soprano Anna Netrebko. The most intoxicating Russian export since Stolichnaya, Netrebko proves herself yet again to be one of the most complete performers on the operatic stage today. Leave aside for a moment her doe-eyed beauty and balletic grace; the voice is what marks her for greatness. The forward placement and soubrettish tang of her lower register bring to mind the young Mirella Freni, but as her voice rises into the upper octaves, it begins to glow with a silver light reminiscent of Gundula Janowitz in her prime. Even so, Netrebko’s vocal personality is unmistakably her own. And, as in her previous WashOp appearances, she’s the most compelling person to watch onstage. She finds both Ilia’s vulnerability and her imperial swagger, teasing out subtle shifts of emotion even when her character is standing quietly at the sidelines.
Mozart gives the people of Crete some of the most stirring pages in the score. Steven Gathman’s well-drilled chorus does the music moving justice, rising to a truly exultant finale. Claire Gibaut is a conductor who understands the need for brute orchestral force to fill the Kennedy Center Opera House, but she also knows how Mozart’s instrumentation needs to sound. So the strings are satisfyingly full-bodied, the winds prominent and loaded with piquant character, the brass suitably oracular. And the opera really moves, the long sequences of uninterrupted music played with sweep and power.
Idomeneo draws the curtain on one of WashOp’s strongest fall seasons in recent memory. It also marks the closing of the Opera House for a yearlong renovation. It feels right, somehow, that so ceremonial and, ultimately, so celebratory an opera is serving as a temporary swan song. Let’s just hope that whatever bargain the WashOp muckety-mucks made with the gods provides some acoustic miracles at the company’s temporary home: the notoriously music-resistant Constitution Hall. CP