Tagged: Idomeneo

Review: Idomeneo at the COC

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Idomeneo, as an opera, is dramatically weak. It has the classic situation-not-plot problem: the situation is outlined at the beginning of the opera, every character spends a while explaining how they feel about the situation, and their occasional attempts to resolve the situation are entirely ineffectual. When the resolution arrives it involves divine intervention (a literal deus ex machina) and doesn’t quite make sense. To make things worse, Elettra – who has some stunning arias – doesn’t interact with any of the other characters and her subplot (if you can call it that) is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the story. The director might choose to throw the audience a bone by serving up an impressive sea monster, but the audience is as likely to giggle as gasp.

But Idomeneo is still Mozart operating at top form, full of musical treasures and stunning moments, and the music makes the draggy parts worth it.

The strengths and faults of the COC production mirror those of the opera itself. It’s musically splendid, jam-packed with beautiful voices and powerful singing, but visually and dramatically it’s a bit jumbled.

All the principals were in top form, especially Paul Groves as the King of Crete himself. While Isabel Bayrakdarian as Ilia and Krisztina Szabó as Idamante sang beautifully but carried themselves a little awkwardly, Groves was a charismatic and commanding stage presence while still giving a beautiful and deeply felt vocal performance. The Act III ensemble stands out in my mind as especially beautiful – truly Mozart at his best.

The staging was pretty to look at, with aquatic pinks and blues, but highly symbolic and at times opaque. The scrim showed a blank, open book with a Magritte-esque cutout revealing blue clouds; what that was meant to signify, I’m not sure. At one point, Ilia pulled a pink-hued blanket over her head (prompting snickers from the audience) and Idamante sang to a lump of textile. There was, at one point, a row of (fake) babies swaddled in black. The costumes were a strange jumble of different periods, mixing classical Greek hairstyles with modern suits and shift dresses. I could not find any “About this Production” note in my program, and the import of many of these abstract touches was beyond me.

My review comes almost at the end of Idomeneo’s COC run, so I imagine those reading this have already made up their minds. Nevertheless, for those who will be attending on Saturday, my recommendation would be to enjoy the thrilling singing and ignore the lack of a sea monster.

Other Opinions:

Canoe JAM!: “Together, de Carpentries and his team milk enough action from the stasis of the tale to keep the audience as engaged in the story being spun out by this gifted cast as we are in the music they’re making.”

National Post: “The COC orchestra did full justice to the richly symphonic score. Music alone makes this production worthwhile. Helpfully, there is more than music.”

The Globe and Mail: “The principal singers are, without any serious exception, outstanding, with virile American tenor Paul Groves’s superb Idomeneo, delectable Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian’s elegant Ilia and the excellent Irish-Canadian tenor Michael Colvin’s blind Arbace – Idomeneo’s confidant – heading the list.”

Sound Mind (Toronto Star): “As has been the case all season, the musical standards matched those of any of the finest houses in the world.”

ConcertoNet: “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.”

Classical 96.3 FM: “The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo is the third in a row with sublime singing and nuttier than a fruitcake staging and lighting.”

Getting to Know You: Idomeneo at Glyndebourne, 1964

[Full Disclosure: Naxos has provided me with a promotional copy of this recording]

Cover of the Glyndebourne release of Idomeneo, 1964

First things first: I’d like to direct your attention to the cover art for this recording. That is a sea monster for the ages, the sea monster of my B-movie dreams. Right down to its strangely limp tentacled appendages and its dripping, jagged-toothed maw.

Here is where I reveal my inadequacy as a lover of Mozart opera: I am largely unfamiliar with Idomeneo. I remember a televised production from perhaps five years ago that featured Japan-inspired sets and costumes, but otherwise this is my first encounter with this opera, one of Mozart’s earliest successes. Since the COC’s production opens May 9th, I thought I’d use this album discussion as an opportunity to familiarize myself with it. I made liberal use of The COC’s Listening Guide to quickly familiarize myself with the key arias and ensembles.

Listening to this recording without following along with the libretto, it’s immediately identifiable as a Mozart opera. Though the conventions of Opera Seria are firmly in place and the musical gestures are rather more grandiose than in his celebrated comedies, the lightness, agility, and fineness of detail I associate with Mozart’s music is very much in evidence. I always especially enjoy Mozart’s ensemble pieces, and Pria di Partir, O Dio! is an outstanding example.

Usually what winds up endearing me the most to a given Mozart opera isn’t the big set-piece arias, but rather the small moments, maybe lasting only four bars or so, that command my attention, turn my head, and then disappear as quickly as they arose. Idomeneo is full of them – just now the interesting chord changes near the end of Popoli, A Voi, and when I first started listening, the lovely descending scales in Ilia’s first aria, Padre, germani, addio!

Pavarotti’s presence as Idamante makes this recording of particular interest – though it also adds to the recording’s idiosyncrasies. This performance captures him at the very beginning of his career, when (as the liner notes tell us) he still hadn’t decided if a career as a football player would suit him better than one as an opera singer. The recording itself is an effective argument for his future stardom, documenting the beautiful blooming voice that was to bring him the highest name recognition of any opera singer since Caruso. Of course, Pavarotti isn’t a singer especially at home in the Mozartean repertoire, and his very Italianate Idamante has distinctly Nemorino-ish overtones. In addition, the role was originally written for a castrato, with tenor-fication coming later (I understand the COC will use a mezzo-soprano). There is equally beautiful singing from the renowned Gundula Janowitz as Ilia. Richard Lewis as Idomeneo, however, often sounds rough and unsteady, particularly in the more florid passages.

Though a live performance, the recording is blessedly free of distracting stage and audience noise, and the sound quality is excellent for a live recording from the period. Even the applause has mostly been excised, from what I can tell. The liner notes are informative, with many interesting photographs of the production included. There is a full libretto with English, French, and German translations. While perhaps too quirky to be a definitive recording for newcomers to Idomeneo, I very much enjoyed getting to know these other facets of Mozart’s music.

The recording is available for purchase from www.glyndebourne.com.