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La clemenza di Nettuno

New York
Metropolitan Opera
09/29/2001 -  and 3, 6, 10, 13, 18, 22, 25 October

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo

Dawn Upshaw (Ilia), Susan Graham (Idamante), Sandra Lopez, Deanne Meek (Women of Crete), Tony Stevenson, Alfred Walker (Trojan soldiers), Carol Vaness (Elettra), Mark Oswald (Arbace), Plácido Domingo (Idomeneo), Antonio Barasorda (High priest), Hao Jiang Tian (Voice of Neptune)

Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus

James Levine (conductor), Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (director)

09/29/01 and 29 September, 2, 6 October

Alban Berg: Wozzeck

Graham Clark (Captain), Falk Struckmann (Wozzeck), John Horton Murray (Andres), Katarina Dalayman (Marie), Wendy White (Margret), Michael Devlin (Doctor), Wolfgang Neumann (Drum Major), James Courtney (First apprentice), Ronald Naldi (Second apprentice), Anthony Laciura (Fool), David Frye (Soldier), Meredith Derr (A townsman), Benjamin Pakman (Marie's child)

Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus

James Levine (conductor), Mark Lamos (director)

The Met was back to business as usual on Saturday, apart from a bag-check policy that lead to serried ranks of dainty dress purses on a table downstairs. The matinée performance of Idomeneo was not only sold out, but packed out, presumably because Domingo isn't optional in these circles. The evening performance of Wozzeck had its fair share of the dutiful and subscribed in a house perhaps three quarters full, pretty good for a twentieth-century opera. As it happened, both productions were solidly sung and visually monochrome, and neither was quite as disturbing as it could have been. Perfect comfort culture.

Idomeneo is a bit of a sea-monster's breakfast, an opera seria with added spectacle and ballet, commissioned, with French libretto and trimmings, and singers, specified, for the Mannheim court. Mozart's settings are Italian concert arias embedded in a coherent musical structure that fits the plot where it touches. The plot itself (based on a mediaeval source) seems designed to generate scenes of pathos rather than drama. It centres on Idomeneo's commitment to Neptune that he will sacrifice the first person he sees on land if he is spared in a storm at sea. The person is his son Idamante, and Idomeneo tries to send him away to save him, as well as offering to die himself instead. Idamante kills the sea-monster that Neptune sends as punishment for the lack of sacrifice, then finally learning what has happened agrees to die himself. Idomeneo is about to kill him when Neptune intervenes and all ends happily.

Mozart's music is often Gluckian, but this is a thoroughly unreformed opera: there is no moral coherence to match the musical design. Most strikingly, there is no sense of horror at a god who requires killing, as there is in Gluck's Iphigenia operas, although Euripides' plays are quite likely common ancestors. Instead, Idamante's reciprocated love for the Trojan princess Ilia, and the envy of Elettra (fleeing the curse of her family and making a general nuisance of herself in Crete), are in the foreground and hold the narrative together insofar as anything does.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production must have been old-fashioned in 1982, when Ponelle produced the first modern performance of the opera. The sets are based on Piranesi's architectural fantasies, but they emphasise a kind of grainy, learned classicism rather than architectural fantasy. A mask of Neptune is almost always visible somewhere on a scrim, a usefully lowering presence missing from the music. The costumes are 1980s 1780s, and the singers stand downstage and strike poses familiar from photos of productions in the 1920s. A small concession to drama is that the characters referred to in monologues are often onstage to one side, especially if they appear in a previous or following scene. There is some business with the throne (a corporate looking chair in front of a massive table), which Elettra hugs as she sings of her love for Idamante, and a putatively mangled body is carried on to show the mayhem that the sea-monster is wreaking, but that's about it for direction. The singers have to do everything by singing.

Plácido Domingo of course is quite at home in a production like this, and still rock solid vocally, as in most other respects. His expresses emotions in the range from nothing much to mildly distraught, but has enough presence to justify the talk of Idomeneo's nobility. Dawn Upshaw as Ilia seemed equally at home in the production, amazingly given her involvement in cutting-edge productions and music, while Susan Graham as Idamante at least sang superbly. Their voices sounded gorgeous together: Mozart saw Octavian and Sophie coming (and John Harbison wrote with similar sensuality for these two singers in The Great Gatsby). Carol Vaness's Elettra was of the jerk-stagger-and-screech school, often ridiculous until she had something to work with in her final mad scene. Mark Oswald was striking as the implausibly named Arbace, who is there to have the plot explained to him and moralize. He made his two arias sound substantial.

James Levine conducted with grace rather than drama. He returned later the same day for Wozzeck, musically less graceful but dramatically far more rewarding, if almost as old-fashioned. Mark Lamos' production seemed to aim for Caligari-vintage expressionism with long shadows, perfectly appropriately. But Robert Israel's elegant, minimalist sets were far too tasteful, lacking dark corners, and Lamos didn't really get the grotesquerie the fine cast could have delivered. Berg's music of course has its own pervasive sense of inhumanity, which would have struck more brutally against more organically disturbed performances. Katarina Dalayman as Marie was the most human figure, earthy but sweet. Falk Struckmann sang gloriously as Wozzeck and kept his dignity until the penultimate scene, when his madness became more intense. Michael Devlin's spidery-shadowed Doctor came closest to achieving the production's expressionist aspirations, while Graham Clark's Captain was a comic masterpiece, neurotically telling everyone else to slow down, one of those people you just want to slap. You hoped Benjamin Pakman as Marie's son didn't understand what was going on at the end.

H.E. Elsom



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