An inspired cast brings out the human drama in Lyric Opera’s “Idomeneo”

Fri Oct 19, 2018 at 7:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthew Polenzani sings the title role in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Kyle Flubacker

Let’s be honest: Idomeneo really should not work at all.

The opera relates the fantastical tale of the title king of Crete who has made a devil’s bargain with Neptune; for sparing his life in a shipwreck, the sea god has commanded Idomeneo to sacrifice the life of the first person he sees after coming ashore. Unfortunately, that person is Idomeneo’s son, Idamante. Meanwhile Idamante is in love with Ilia, the captured princess of Troy, yet pursued by the jealous Elettra. If this isn’t enough, Crete is bedeviled by a sea monster who threatens death and destruction to all. 

In addition to substantial vocal challenges in the principal roles, the stilted dramaturgy and alternately weak and overwrought libretto make the opera a tough sell to modern audiences.

What Idomeneo does have is Mozart’s music. Premiered two days after the composer’s 25th birthday, his opera seria is inspired and often remarkable, rising to strikingly noble and elevated heights.

Lyric Opera belatedly opened its first production of Idomeneo in two decades Thursday night, following the cancellation of the initial performance due to the musicians’ strike. The interrupted rehearsal schedule appeared to have resulted in a few loose ends, both musically and in the staging.

Yet with Matthew Polenzani in his signature title role heading a largely excellent cast, this was about as inspirational a performance of this difficult opera as one is likely to hear. Idomeneo is a genuine rarity in Chicago and with just four more performances, true-blue Mozartians should not miss out.  

There are unique musical elements in Idomeneo even for Mozart—the freedom and expressive elasticity of the recitatives, and the way Mozart works the prominent chorus into and around solo arias. There are also superb musical moments for all five principals, as with the Act 3 quartet, and Ilia’s “Se il padre perdei” with its graceful foursome of obbligato winds. 

Idomeneo is the earliest Mozart opera still in the regular repertory—kind of, sort of—and poses daunting textual challenge for presenters. Mozart made drastic cuts even before the 1781 premiere, in the interest of time as well as the inadequacies of some singers. He also added new music and variants for later performances. Companies therefore must build their own Idomeneo burger, selecting the most suitable music for each cast and production.

For these performances, Lyric has made largely sound decisions, with judicious trimming that managed to keep the evening moving. (The closing ballet was jettisoned as is traditional.)

Still, Lyric’s cast is so strong that one inevitably couldn’t help feeling the loss of much worthy music even while acknowledging the practical necessities. Even with cuts, Lyric’s Idomeneo clocks in at just under four hours (with two 25-minute intermissions).

The length, dubious libretto and ancient milieu apart, Idomeneo is a sing more than anything else and on that score Lyric delivers the goods.

Matthew Polenzani likely has no peer today in the role of the conflicted king of Crete— torn between his love for his son Idamante and his promise to fulfill his sacrifice to the gods for the sake of the greater community. 

The Evanston-born singer sounded a bit husky in the lower range early in the evening yet soon warmed up. Polenzani rose to Idomeneo’s Act 2 showpiece in aptly royal style. While the demanding coloratura sounded a bit strenuous Thursday, Polenzani’s impassioned “Fuor del mar,” was sung with fiery commitment, conveying the king’s psychic desperation with searing intensity.

One of our better singing actors, Polenzani brought compelling immediacy and human vulnerability to the sovereign, as well as a natural nobility of bearing as Idomeneo cedes his throne in the ceremonial final scene.

Janai Brugger possesses a rich, attractive soprano and, overall, proved an admirable Ilia. She displayed intimate warmth and sensitive feeling in “Padre, germani, addio!” yet was cautious in the coloratura flights, lacking brilliance on top. Brugger’s best moment came with her radiant, beautifully floated “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” to open Act 3. 

Still, one wished for more dramatic bite and depth of characterization, vocally as well as dramatically. Ilia is a thankless role in many ways, but in this fast company Brugger’s heroine verged on blandness.

Janai Brugger is Ilia and Angela Brower Idamante in Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” Photo: Kyle Flubacker

Angela Brower made a most impressive Lyric debut as Idamante. The statuesque mezzo is a superb actor—she proved an earnest, forthright hero in this trousers role, conveying hurt and confusion at the king’s rejection and heroic strength when she finally confronts Idomeneo. Brower sang sensitively and with striking agility throughout, throwing off a terrific “Non ho culpa,” capped by a nifty, high-flying cadenza.  

The only complaint about Brower’s performance was that there was not more of it. One felt the loss of Idamante’s music most acutely, especially with “No, la morte ” cut from Act 3. Granted, that aria lies treacherously high for a mezzo, but there is little doubt that Brower could have handled it.

Erin Wall had great fun in the villainess role of Elettra who is also smitten with Idamante. With her bright red wig and sly comic touch, the soprano relished the role of the jealous, rejected Argo princess, while managing to bring a touch of vulnerability in her Act 2 aria. Elettra’s “D’Oreste, d’Alace,” slams the brakes on the action in the opera’s closing minutes but the aria is just too good to cut. Wall showed why, putting across Elettra’s final outburst of rage with able bravura and a scary helping of crazy nasty.

David Portillo brought a vibrant, liquid tenor to the role of Arbace, the king’s devoted councilor. He showed fine flexibility in “Se l too duol, se il mo desio,” rounded off with a gamely flamboyant cadenza. Portillo brought such supple, elegant expression to Arbace’s Act 3 recitative that one felt the loss of his ensuing aria (“Se cola ne’ fat e scritto”) even more.

With aptly stentorian voice and presence, tenor Noah Baetge made much of his belated appearance as the High Priest. Conversely, David Weigel lacked the deep, sonorous tone needed for the climactic offstage Voice of Neptune. Kayleigh Decker and Whitney Morrison, especially, were a notably strong pair of Cretan Women.

After the campy kitsch and cost-effective minimalism that has been manifested in many Lyric Opera shows of recent years, it was refreshing to encounter the sturdy, retro gigantism of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s celebrated Met production. The unit set may be 36 years old, but it still makes imposing impact with towering ancient stone columns framing a huge open space with rising stairs in the middle; the eyeless visage of Neptune presides over the action, staring out at the audience in unsettling fashion.

Less successful were the stage effects or lack thereof, which came off as undeniably cheesy. The sea monster, which is a major plot point, is nonexistent in this production; instead, the chorus merely cowers before the Neptune head, which makes little sense since it’s been massively present since the curtain went up. Likewise, the similarly staged climax of Act 3 went off the boil with ill-timed lightning flashes that your local haunted house does a better job with this time of year.

Revival director David Kneuss handled the blocking challenges of the vast space capably for the most part, with a couple jarring lapses. The fact that Idomeneo and Idamante fail to recognize each other in Act 1—up close, undisguised and in bright light— was even more baffling than usual. And the corny unison movements for the chorus were embarrassing, not least the heidy-ho arm-waving in distressed moments.

Even with those unhelpful oddities, the Lyric Opera Chorus rose to the occasion in their prominent role. Sounding much more polished than opening night in La Boheme, the ensemble sang with commendable strength and cohesion.

Similarly, the Lyric Opera Orchestra showed impressive professionalism, putting aside the distractions and ill will of recent weeks and tackling Mozart’s score with admirable commitment and vitality.

Andrew Davis’s tempos in Mozart seem to get more stately each year. The big dramatic climaxes lacked punch on this belated opening night and there were moments, notably near the end of Act 1, where momentum drooped precariously. For the most part though, the company’s music director brought his customary insight and idiomatic Mozart touch to this fascinating score.

If there was any doubt whose side the Lyric Opera audience was on in the recent strike and conflict between management and musicians, it was made manifestly clear Thursday night. With Davis inviting them to stand, the orchestra was enthusiastically applauded and vociferously cheered before the start of all three acts.

Idomeneo runs through November 2.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “An inspired cast brings out the human drama in Lyric Opera’s “Idomeneo””

  1. Posted Oct 20, 2018 at 4:40 pm by Hank Browne

    is it possible that the “corny” movements of the chorus is an homage to the baroque tradition?

  2. Posted Oct 29, 2018 at 12:26 am by Roger Conner

    Thanks for a perceptive, entertaining, and informative review! The multiple versions may help explain what I felt was a decided falling off of Mozart’s sagging commitment in the third act. But your praise of his genius in the recitatives was illuminating. I had noticed it without being able to put my finger on the source of my delight.

    I think omitting the monster was a mistake. There is little enough motion and spectacle at best.

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