Musically strong, dramatically tenuous
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
05/09/2010 - & May 12*, 15, 18, 21, 25, 27, 29, 2010
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo, Rè di Creta
Paul Groves (Idomeneo), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Ilia), Krisztina Szabó (Idamante), Tamara Wilson (Elettra), Michael Colvin (Arbace), Adam Luther (High Priest of Neptune), Michael Uloth/Neil Craighead* (Oracle), Laura Albino/Ileana Montalbetti (Two Cretan Women), Michael Barrett/Neil Craighead (Two Trojan Men)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Harry Bicket (Conductor)
François de Carpentries (Director, Lighting Designer), Karine Van Hercke (Costume Designer/Dramaturge), Siegfried Mayer (Set Designer)
Paul Groves (© Michael Cooper)
Mozart’s Idomeneo, Rè di Creta returns to the COC after a 10-year absence, this time in a production from France’s L’Opéra du Rhin. The musical side of things goes exceedingly well under Harry Bicket (last heard here when he conducted Handel’s Rodelinda in 2005. In fact, the COC Orchestra, with its continuo players Steven Philcox on the fortepiano and Paul Widner on the cello, sounds like a renowned specialist orchestra devoted to achieving exactly the right tone and approach to Mozart. Even the COC’s excellent chorus sounds more distinguished than usual in Mozart’s great choral opera.
Things go less well dramatically, partly as a result of the decision to set the action in modern times, perhaps just after World War I. Ilia, the Trojan princess, is dressed in Turkish folk style, and Idomeneo wears a military uniform complete with gold braid and epaulets. Elettra is got up as a spoiled princess, wearing a different and very major gown for every appearance. She has liveried attendants who carry her impressive set of matched luggage, a directorial touch that borders on camp.
As we are no longer in the Age of Antiquity, the Priest is Greek Orthodox. However the plot has him presiding (albeit reluctantly) at a human sacrifice. This makes no sense. And the voice of the oracle, the deus ex machina that rescues Idamante from his barbaric fate, turns out to be just another member of the passing crowd.
Many directorial ideas work just fine. A group of supers is employed, often to great effect such as when they portray the freed Trojan prisoners. At times, however, their activities are distracting. Idomeneo is a challenge to mount. At times the music demands something hieratic or processional, and in this production these moments simply aren’t there. Drama melts away when the stage picture stays so resolutely mundane.
The attractive set has a spiral plan inspired by the chambered nautilus, with curved walls reminiscent of a sculpture by Richard Serra. This gives the opportunity for a certain amount of extra dynamism in the movements of the performers. At the centre of the spiral is a tree stump, the importance of which is revealed in the second act: it is the site of the human sacrifice called for by Neptune.
Isabel Bayrakdarian has the ideal voice and look for Ilia, the character who challenges the title role as the spiritual core of the opera. She gets to open each act with an aria, both hampered somewhat by being sung behind a scrim. She rises to the height of vocal drama required in the scene where she puts herself forward as the sacrificial victim.
Paul Groves is an outstanding Idomeneo. His voice is expressive but he never resorts to shouting, a pitfall in this role. He doesn’t seem at all daunted by the difficulties in his showpiece aria Fuor del mar ho un mar in seno.
Tamara Wilson is a solid Elettra, notably when she overcomes the challenge of D’Oreste, d’Aiace, her fiendish mad aria. As noted above, this character loses stature thanks to the modernization of the setting. Her music has hints of her tortured personal history (she is from the cursed House of Atreus after all), but here she is a shallow narcissist with an undue sense of entitlement. During her one lyrical aria, Idol mio, se ritroso, in which she yearns for Idamante’s love for Ilia to be channeled in her direction, she gazes at herself in a mirror and applies makeup.
Krisztina Szabó is a fine Idamante at least vocally. There are times I wish the character was given more to do then merely wax lovelorn. For example: we are informed that Idamante has killed the sea monster, but a moment later he reappears with his white suit as immaculate as ever, not a hair out of place.
The role of Arbace, Idomeneo’s advisor, is frequently reduced to that of a messenger with his arias eliminated. Michael Colvin gets to sing the lengthy second aria, Se colà ne’ fati è scritto, which he does with great brio and fine voice. Still, one can understand why it is usually cut as it holds up the action and what do we really gain by learning that he would willingly sacrifice himself if that would placate Neptune? The central dilemmas of the opera involve the king, his son and the two princesses. Switching the focus to someone else is merely distracting, no matter how fine the singing. Director François de Carpentries has further devised a bit of a sub-plot to help focus attention on Arbace: he is portrayed as blind, wearing a blindfold and using a white cane. His sight is restored at the end. Such multi-focused plotting is typical of opera seria with which this work is often categorized. However it really shares more with Gluck’s streamlined reform operas.
Overall, this production of Mozart’s first truly mature opera is musically top notch and scenically attractive for the most part. It is a shame it falls short dramatically.