Semi-staged Barbican Idomeneo lives up to expectations

Mozart, Idomeneo, re di Creta, K 366: (Semi-Staged Performance)   Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Choir/Thomas Hengelbrock (conductor) Barbican Hall, London,  11.6.2011 (GD)

Idomeneo- Steve Davislim
Elettra – Tamar Iveri
Ilia  – Camilla Tilling
Idamante – Christina Daletska
Abace – Virgil Hartinger
High Priest  – Dominik Wortig
A Voice – Marek Rzepka

From the opening chords of the overture with with well-rehearsed, sharp accented period instruments, expectations were high. And overall the performance mostly lived up to those expectations. Idomeneo, composed in 1780 for a Munich commission, and premiered in Munich in January 1781, marks a paradigm shift in the history of opera. Mozart was fully aware of the opera seria tradition developed by Gluck, and his rival Picinni. And we know from the copious correspondence between Mozart and his father that the composer incorporated elements from this tradition, notably the inclusion of the dramatic chorus fashionable at the time at the Paris opera. But Mozart integrates the choruses of Idomeneo much more into the drama, having nothing of the mere chorus ‘effect’ about them. And this new aspect of dramatic integration, developed by the 24 year old composer, applied to the complete opera in terms of narrative, character development and contrast, as well a whole operatic tonal scheme which corresponded both to each musical characterisation, and the work as a whole.  Also Mozart introduced some totally new and opulent orchestration, particularly in the woodwind and horn writing. Mozart had earlier been delighted and inspired by the magnificent orchestra at Mannheim, and he knew that in Munich he would have at his disposal not only one of Europe’s finest orchestras but also a fine and large chorus.

The basic story of Idomeneo is typical of opera seria at the time, based, as it is, on themes from Classical Greek drama. Saved by the Gods from a shipwreck King Idomeneo promises a blood sacrifice, but discovers that the victim must be his son Idamante; Ilia, the captive Trojan Princess, is torn between her love for Idamante and her hatred for Idomeneo (who killed her father); there’s a jealous Elettra (who also loves Idamante), a monster that must be slain, and a saving deus ex machina. But one of the crucial things which makes Idomeneo so much more engaging than the standard opera seria is the way that Mozart’s superb music breathes life into these otherwise rather formal and unbelievable characters and situations. Mozart chose the Salzburg court musician and poet Giambattista Varesco as his librettist, not so much for Varesco’s dramatic gifts (he was at best a competent librettist) but because he could communicate and work easily with from Munich. As it turns out, Mozart became increasingly disenchanted by Varesco’s lack of imagination and operatic economy.

Tonight’s Idomeneo was a  kind of semi-staged concert performance.  After the overture the singers walked onto the stage from the wings to perform their various  roles. Camila Tilling’s opening aria ‘Pardre gemani’, where she sings of the agonies of being torn between the loving memory of her slain father King Priam, being held captive, and her undeclared love for Idamante,  was well characterised. I detected a slight vocal strain in several top registers, which may have been in keeping with her characterisation. Throughout the performance conductor and orchestra tended to submit to the singer’s decision to make a ritenuto in say an aria cadenza, as in this aria. I would have thought this practice probably more appropriate to a full operatic performance than to a concert performance?

Christina Daletska’s Idamante was similarly well sung and characterised. Mozart in the later revised 1786 Vienna version opted for a tenor for this role, and this mostly remained the tradition in the the opera’s performance history, carried over until quite recently with tenors like Ernst Haefliger and Peter Schreier. But with the ‘period’ performance take-over a reversion to the original Munich soprano Idamante has been the order of the day. I suppose it ultimately depends on the quality of the singer involved, but it is arguable whether a tenor Idamante brings more tonal balance between staff and distaff. Deletska’s Act 1 ‘Non ho colpa’, an admission of Idamante’s attraction to Ilia, and the Act 2 aria ‘No, la morte’ , a preference of his own death if it can ensure an end to his father’s woes and peace of mind for his beloved Ilia, both went well with quite smooth but well controlled vocal intonation. But it was the sublime Act 3  duet ‘S’io non moro a questi accenti’  with its subtle touch of ‘buffa’ in the coda, in which they each acknowledge their blissful love for each other despite the ensuing fight between Idamante and the sea monster,  which really brought out the best in Daletska’s Idamante, and Tilling’s Ilia tonight.

The character of Elettra, daughter of Agamemnon, Is certainly part of the action, but seems more detached from the emotional complexity of Ilia and Idamante. Not that Elettra is devoid of emotion. Jealous rage and fury are the passions/obsessions she projects. Mozart was very reluctant to cut her great Act 3 aria of rage ‘D’Oreste, d ‘Aiace’ in the later Munich revision. She is a prefiguration of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, and Mozart saw her primarily as chance to develop his formidable composing technique in  the two uniquely dramatic and dark recitatives and arias he assigns to her, replete with baroque vocal coloratura. Her earlier Act 1 aria ‘Tutte nel cor vi sento’, where the spirits of hell and the vengeance against Ilia rise up in her, was sung well by Tamar Iveri, although at times, – admirable as her vocal control was – I felt the need for a wider dramatic range, a fiercer vocality – of the kind one hears from Alexandrina  Pendatchanska on Rene Jacob’s superb recent recording of the opera. The sense of vocal strain was even more pronounced in her Act 3 aria mentioned above, in which she intones the preference for violent suicide with a dagger to the rage and turmoil that burn  in her breast. And Iveri didn’t quite manage the staggering coloratura figurations at the end of her aria. Throughout the performance Thomas Hengelbrock made the most of Mozart’s dramatically evocative orchestration, and in this aria, in particular,  he really conjured up the violence of hellfire, of serpents and vipers, in the lashing string figurations, and acerbic woodwind and brass interjections

Vocally the male roles as sung tonight were preferable to their female counterparts. But to be fair to the ladies the male parts, essentially around Idomeneo and Arbace, are less vocally demanding. This imbalance in vocal demands applies even more, as here, when Idamante is sung by a woman. Steve Davislim’s Idomeneo made a powerful effect. In his superb Act 1 aria ‘Vedromni intorno l’ombra dolente’ in which he imagines himself haunted by the ghost of the innocent person he has vowed to slay, he captured well  Idomeneo’s feelings of guilt and fear at the unatural dilemma he finds himself in. Here his ‘Che notte e giorno’ I felt rather over-accented, although the dramatic point was still well made. His great Act 2 bravura aria ‘Fuor del mar ho un in seno’, in which he compares the storm now raging in his breast with the one he has just escaped at sea, had plenty of vocal swagger, although here and there I had the impression of vocal stridency when Davislim was in full throttle . True, the piece is composed for a full ranging and powerful tenor voice, but Davislim certainley did not dispel fond memories of Nicolai Gedda, and more recently, Ian Bostridge in this role. Mozart’s Idomeneo is a complex personality who manages his tribulations with amazing equanimity. I was not sure about the ad lib timpani extemporisations prefacing the aria’s cadenza, but it could be argued that this kind of thing was in keeping with the many additions Mozart made in his own performance practice.    Idomeneo’s last aria ‘Torna la pace’, in which he expresses his feelings of rejuvunation at the clemency of the Gods, was cut tonight. Of course this corresponded with the rather general programme note that the performance was a combination of the 1781 Munich and the revised 1786 Vienna version. But is this kind of omission really necessary now with none of the constraints Mozart was under? With this aria omitted we were deprived of some beautiful music, and it also makes a welcome contrast to the extended recitative material preceding the final chorus.

Similarly Arbace’s second aria in Act 3 ‘Se cola ne’ fati e’ scritto’, in which he laments Idomeneo’s fate, offering himself as a sacrifice in his duty to his king, was cut tonight. It was cut in the Vienna 1786 revised version because it was thought too long, holding up the narrative action. But surely London audiences in 2011, in a concert version,  have learnt more patience, and and musical appreciation than those of the audiences in the Vienna in 1786? Again we were deprived of one of Mozart’s most beautiful tenor arias. This was especially the case as tonight’s Arbace Virgil Hartinger sung his first Act 2  aria ‘Se il tuo duol’ in which he assures Idomeneo of his undying loyalty, with great agility and sensitivity.  Arbace here is a prefiguration of later operatic characters like Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni!. The great Act 3 quartet ‘ Andro ramingo e solo’, in which the  characters together express their deep sorrow – in Elettra’s case deep fury – at Idamante’s departure to go off and slay the sea-monster, went excellently, with Hangelbrock taking just the right tempo, steady, but never dragging. Again there were excellently sharp, focused woodwind and horn interjections. Mozart retained a special fondness for Idomeneo and, in particular, this quartet which he would sing with family and friends.

A special note of praise must go to tonight’s chorus. Their dramatic intonation and dynamic accuracy were excellently demonstrated in the magical contrast they brought in the peaceful sounds of ‘Placcido e il mar’ and the storm chorus ‘Quai nuovo terrore’ culminating in the terrifying D minor of the Sea Monster.  Also they gave the final triumphant chorus of rejoicing and  thanks to the Gods ‘Scenda Amor, scenda imeneo’, a ring of jubilation and finality. The great Act 3 D minor chorus  ‘Oh voto tremendo’ mourning the fate of divine sacrifice,  had a wonderful ritual quality to it with period timpani and natural plangent trumpets. The parallels with the D minor Kyrie K 341, also composed earlier in Munich, were particularly striking tonight.   The earthquake effect, and the amplified voce of the oracle proclaiming the triumph of love and sung by Marek Rzepka, came off well without sounding too melodramatic.

As with a lot of semi-staged performances there was sometimes a sense that more direction and choreography would have helped. I had the impression that the singers were just walking around with no particular level of co-ordination. On one occasion before the great Act 3 quartet, Ilia and Elettra hovered  around the stage  glaring at each other like rival cats.

Overall, and despite the above noted reservations, this was a most enjoyable. well played and sung rendition of a truly noble and great opera.

Geoff Diggines