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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mozart's Early Masterpiece

Florentine Opera presents 'Idomeneo'

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Regarded as Mozart's first great opera, Idomeneo was a remarkable breakthrough for the 24-year-old composer. It hailed from a period in which opera seria was considered the norm, a form the stately oratorio style of Gluck and Handel exemplified by characters describing action in lengthy monologues without actually doing anything onstage. But Mozart produced a work rich in orchestral writing with unusual intensity. Adding dimension and poignancy to the traditional recitatives, Mozart formulated arias rich in melody along with choral ensembles containing greater pace and a more delicately conceived response to the libretto, without abandoning the formal conventions of opera seria. One might say Mozart was working within the system, expanding its possibilities without abandoning its outlines.

There is plenty of simulated action in Idomeneo, including a storm, a sea monster and the admonishing voice of Neptune dominating the whole proceedings. There is the jealous homeless refugee Elettra (Elektra) who, having left her own bloody family history behind, brings harbingers of doom to the central romantic triangle. Mozart miraculously combined the courtly world of 18th-century Europe with the charming hierarchies of foreboding mythology—quaint but pervasively effective in this context of conflicting loyalties and emotions surrounding vengeful gods and proud kings.

Idomeneo returns to Crete after successfully defeating the Trojans, but a severe storm almost leaves him for dead. He supplicates Neptune for a safe return, but the god demands he must sacrifice the first person he meets on land. Irony will have its way in this unreasoning world of classical mythology, as the first person is none other than Idomeneo's own son, the innocently unaware Idamante.

Meanwhile, both Idamante and Idomeneo have developed affection for the captive Trojan princess, Ilia. She loves only Idamante, to the annoyance of Elettra, who, loving Idamante herself, voices displeasure in her great Act 1 aria—effectively establishing the tone for the ensuing drama. Idomeneo attempts to save his unwitting son by sending him to Greece with Elettra upon the advice of his friend Abace. Neptune is not to be so easily fooled and whips up another giant storm, throwing in a destructive sea serpent for good measure. Mozart's storm sequences are vibrant orchestral fun, as when Neptune sings his offstage dénouement, resolving all issues.

Yet, the exploratory energy in Mozart's first major opera becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses toward the finale. The score coalesces with a great sense of dramatic depth, highlighting the tension between the edgy characterizations and resolving into a musical pattern that will distinguish the greater operas still to come. The arias themselves may not be as memorable on first hearing as in Figaro, but the arresting classicism of the score, disingenuously youthful, provides a refreshing lilt far removed from the liturgical rigidity of late Baroque. The lovely Elettra-Ilia-Idamante Act 1 trio serves as a tantalizing promise of things to come.

At its best, Idomeneo serves as a treasure chest of unsuspected musical jewels, some sparkling more brilliantly than others. Ilia's lovely lament in the third act is followed by the superbly balanced final quartet, voicing the emotions of the principals. Each voice has its own musical signature, anticipating a musical tradition soon to develop into a more popular concept of opera.

William Florescu, the Florentine Opera's ever-enterprising general director, promises an innovative new look for his production of Idomeneo, one of his two favorite Mozart operas (the other being Figaro). He promises a more streamlined look at the early masterpiece, using videos to highlight the historical background. Florescu assures us that even those totally unfamiliar with Greek mythology will find the ensuing story pleasurable and illuminating, as directed by John La Bouchardiere.

The costuming and sets will be generic, with an emphasis on the stylistic lucidity of the drama. Florescu considers the choral writing the finest in the Mozart canon, adding that the Florentine production aims to capture the "timelessness" of the piece without harnessing it to a given "time." There are no Greek columns. Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz returns to the Florentine in the title role, with creamy-voiced Georgia Jarman as Elettra and Marie-Eve Munger debuting as Ilia.

Idomeneo
runs May 18 and May 20 at Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Steve Spice is a retired educator interested in cultural sociology, particularly the historical background of Western music and the early development of motion pictures.