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Opera Review: Altar'ed States

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Matthew Polenzani takes on Idomeneo at the Met. by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: Altar'ed States

Idomeneo (Matthew Polenzani, left) contemplates sacrificing his son Idamante (Alice Coote, kneeling) in Act III of Mozart's Idomeneo.  Photo  by Marty Sohl Copyright 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.

James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera’s music director emeritus continued his tour of the great Mozart operas on Monday night with this season’s first revival of Idomeneo. This staging of the 1781 opera seria featured a cast of singers that have been groomed and nurtured under Mr. Levine's hand. Last night, the most notable of these was tenor Matthew Polenzani. He sang the title role, a part essayed on the big Met stage by both Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo in decades past.
Written when the composer was just 25, Idomeneo is Mozart’s greatest and most ambitious opera seria. This watershed work combines the French classicism of Gluck with the vocal fireworks of Italian baroque. Its creator was at the start of his musical maturity and at the apex of his creative powers. Despite its myriad musical treasures, Idomeneo has struggled to carve its place in the standard repertory since its premiere. However, at the Met that place that has been assured by this 31-year old staging by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and Mr. Levine's insistence on periodic revivals in his four decades as music director.
The story takes place after the Trojan War, and tells the story of Idomeneo, who is king of Crete. He survives a shipwreck and promises to sacrifice the first living creature he meets to Poseidon. That creature is his son, Idamante (a trouser role, played here by Alice Coote.) The opera deals with the crisis of faith caused by this reckless decision, and whether the King will kill his own son. A subplot has Idamante caught between the virtuous Ilia, a Trojan princess (Nadine Sierra)  and the absolutely demented Elettra (Elza van den Heever) who (since she’s crazy) gets some of Mozart’s best music to sing.
Mr. Polenzani entered in Act I tentatively, as if aware of the famous names crossed out on the laundry label of the gold and purple costume that he wore. However, he unpacked his pleasing tenor voice as the show progressed finally displaying all of his vocal gifts in the great Act Ii aria “Fuor del mar.” His performance drew applause from the house, which was quickly shushed so he could get to the da capo section and the baroque-style ornamentation that is this aria’s steepest challenge. By the evening’s end he had settled into the royal role, managing something  like regal grandeur, (if not quite authority) in the opera’s climax.
As one might expect, Ms. Van den Heever’s Elettra was much more complicated. She sounded tentative in “Tutte nel cor di sento”, although her looming presence and upswept Elsa Lanchester hairdo was enough to convey the instabiltiy of her character. Stability of tone arrived in the great Act II trio. In “D’Oreste, D’Ajace”, inserted abruptly into the solemnity of the temple scene, she simply burned down the house, going over the top vocally and dramatically. Ms. van den Heever ended the aria with a fainting spell and was carried off by six burly stagehands, who wrangled her (and the wide bustle of her gown) through the painted stone columns of the set.
The strongest, most consistent performance here was from Nadine Sierra in the role of Ilia, Idamante’s Trojan love interest. Sweet of nature and tone, this sometimes dull character became a paragon of vocal innocence, aided by scallop-sleeved gowns of a virginal white. As Idamante, Ms. Coote channeled some of that same cross-gendered energy that makes her Octavian such a  success, even appearing in silver tunic and white wig in the second half of the opera. Her voice was silvery too, navigating the agile tessitura to enrapturing effect. Gregory Schmidt was a last minute tenor substitute as Arbace, and Eric Owens made an invisible but welcome appearance as the Voice of Neptune.
The biggest problem with this revival of Idomeneo is its energy level. For that one must look to the podium at the center of the Met pit and Mr. Levine himself. It is no secret that the conductor suffers from Parkinsons-related tremors in his left hand. That limits his ability to draw nuance and phrasing from singers and orchestra. With his right hand beating steady time, that meant that this perfmance felt rote, lacking the drama and drive that can make these marbled characters leap off the stage and into the imagination. For an opera like Idomeneo, that has lived at the edge of the repertory for years, this approach may not be enough.

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