Ravinia’s intimate staging proves ideal for Mozart’s “Idomeneo”

Sat Aug 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Susanna Phillips as Ilia and Richard Croft in the title role of Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” performed Thursday at Ravinia. Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Ravinia Festival

A major highlight of James Conlon’s eight-year tenure as the Ravinia Festival’s music director has been his biennial survey of Mozart operas. Idomeneo, the second of this season’s Mozart pair, opened Friday night in Ravinia’s cozy Martin Theatre. With a superb cast supported by a chamber-sized contingent of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Conlon, this Idomeneo was a potent reminder that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to opera capable of gripping the heart.

Idomeneo has glorious music—arias both showy and dulcet, rousing choruses, intricately layered duets, trios and, most notably, a blazing quartet for the soloists. Mozart’s masterful orchestration is a constant partner in telling the complicated story, providing images that range from churning seas to pastoral calm. But the 1781 work is an opera seria, an 18th century form notably short on stage action. Difficult to stage and requiring a cast of stellar singers to handle its demanding vocal lines, Idomeneo is relatively rarely heard.

Which makes it ideal for the kind of intimate music-making that Ravinia audiences have come to cherish in Conlon’s ongoing Mozart project. The Murray Theatre has 850 seats, and thanks to its warm acoustics, music from the stage seems to envelope the entire audience. Striding across the front of the stage, spilling onto the porches that flank the stage, occasionally coming down an aisle, the singers seemed close enough to touch Friday night. By the opera’s finale, when King Idomeneo happily passes his crown to his brave son, Idamante, we felt as if we were the citizens of Crete he so eloquently addressed. We beamed at Idamante and his beautiful bride, Ilia, like fond guests at a wedding.

Riveting performances from everyone on the Martin Theatre stage, deployed by director David Lefkowich, created that strong bond. Tenor Richard Croft, making his Ravinia debut, was a charismatic Idomeneo, the good-hearted king torn between a rash vow to the demanding god Neptune and love for his noble son. In a showy aria that shifts between defiance of Neptune and despair, he dispatched Mozart’s fiercely virtuoso flights as if they were so much confetti. His warm, agile tenor dripped with scorn. This was not the rage of a rash youngblood. Instead, we saw a powerful king venting profound hatred, fully aware of the cruel dilemma he faced.

Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose was equally convincing as the young prince Idamante. Her clear, often bright mezzo voice conveyed an endearing purity of soul. Soprano Susanna Phillips brought a combination of creamy tone and gleaming top notes to her sensitive portrait of Ilia, the captured princess in love with her captor, Idamante. As Elettra, Ilia’s rival for Idamante’s affections, soprano Tamara Wilson almost raised the Martin Theatre’s wooden rafters in her final aria. All but crazed by a thirst for vengeance, she unleashed her coloratura flights like a fast-moving archer. Both Phillips and Wilson were making their Ravinia debuts.

A fine supporting cast enhanced the story-telling, and the expressive singing of a small contingent of Chicago Symphony Chorus members heightened the drama.

Idomeneo will be repeated at 1 p.m. Sunday. This is Mozart not to be missed.


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