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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Opera Review: Sea Change

René Jacobs offers a fresh take on Mozart's Idomeneo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor René Jacobs led the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Mozart's Idomeneo
in a concert performance Thursday night at Mostly Mozart. Photo by Joseph Molina
courtesy Lincoln Center Press Department.
It is rare to attend a performance with the potential to revamp an entire city's attitude toward a great but neglected piece of classical music. On Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall, the Mostly Mozart Festival welcomed historically informed performance expert and conductor René Jacobs, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and a strong cast of lesser-known soloists, most of them in their Mostly Mozart Festival debuts. Their job: a concert performance of Idomeneo, the no-foolin' three-act operatic masterpiece that Mozart wrote at the age of 25.

Idomeneo is the earliest of Mozart's operas to hold a place in the repertory, but it was only performed a few times in Mozart's lifetime. New Yorkers know it from a respectful but slightly dusty production by Jean-Pierre Ponelle that is occasionally revived by at the Metropolitan Opera, usually when James Levine wants to conduct it. Mr. Jacobs' interpretation blew the dust from the score with fresh, vibrant colors in the orchestra, and most importantly the spirit of the composer as inventor and innovator that permeates this long, but rewarding opera.

The opera is named after its title character, a Cretan king who finds himself in a dreadful fix. Blown off course on the way home from the Trojan War, he makes a vow to the sea god Neptune to sacrifice the first living creature he meets once he reaches shore. Unfortunatly that's his son Idamante. In a sub-plot, Idamante (Gaëlle Arquez) is in a romantic triangle between the Trojan princess Ilia (Sophie Karthäuser) and  Elettra (Alex Penda) the bereaved daughter of the Greek king Agamemnon. With the sacrifice delayed, a sea monster attacks Crete (offstage) and a general atmosphere of dread and impending doom is lifted when the Voice of Neptune (Christoph Seidl) declines the sacrifice.

Mr. Jacobs wasted no time in showing Mozart's experimental spirit. Following the stormy overture, the opera begins in mid-thought with Ilia delivering recitative that melds seamlessly into her first aria. As the work spun forth, it became clear that these all-important expository passages were powered by more than just pianoforte. Mozart was experimenting here with accompanied recitative, shifting as needed between orchestra, solo keyboard and three-piece continuo. Other innovations: the muffled drum-beats that end the second act on a note of doom and dread, and the climactic near-sacrifice of poor Idamante followed by the deus ex machina of the offstage voice of Neptune were equally effective.

Tenor Jeremy Ovenden made a formidable Festival debut in the difficult title role, singing Idomeneo with all of the attendant ornamentation and detail that have made it a desirable part for the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo. And yet, he was more idiomatic than those famous names, injecting himself deeply into the character's mindset and transcending the concert setting with his performance. As Idamante (a role written for a castrato) Ms. Arquez wielded her mezzo expertly, singing with power and conviction in both aria and ensemble.

The Mostly Mozart Festival opened this year with The Illuminated Heart, which featured American powerhouse soprano singing "D'Oreste, d'Ajace", the big barn-burning Act III aria sung by Elettra. Here, Alex Penda offered a very different take on this aria, building to a slow, simmering rage before unleashing the fireworks and hisses as the crazed Greek princess called for serpents and horned lizards to rend her flesh. She was matched in voice (if not ferocity) by Ms. Karthäuser as Ilia, whose slow-blooming romance with Idamante provided many of the evening's pleasures.

By arranging the chorus into men and women on either side of the woodwinds and brass, Mr. Jacobs created a sense of antiphonal space that made the little stage of Alice Tully Hall bigger than it seemed. Singers did not lounge in chairs on stage right and left, but walked on only when they were needed, a decision that minimized interaction between the characters but kept the stage free of visual clutter. This spare approach allowed the ear to focus on the many treats in this score, expertly presented by Mr. Jacobs with every note present and accounted for. Even the often-cut arias for Arbace were present, sung with pleasing tone by tenor Nicolas Rivenq. This was a performance of Idomeneo as it needed to be heard, a bold and fresh product of the young Mozart's boundless imagination with access to infinite resources.

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