The Metropolitan Opera revived Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1982 production of Mozart Idomenee for the second night of the new season. The late French opera director, set designer and costume designer sometimes courted controversy, but for the very first production of Mozart’s opera at the Met, he stuck to the book.
Some of the biggest opera stars of the last forty years appeared in the production. Less starry names are in this revival, but perhaps few casts have brought youthful grace and such charming lyrical singing to Mozart’s sublime melodies as this one. Equally significant were the highly anticipated debut of conductor Manfred Honeck and the return of tenor Michael Spyres to the Met in the title role.
Mozart was only 24 when he composed Idomenee.The opera is set on the island of Crete and is one of many stories arising from the aftermath of the Trojan War. Its plot centers on the wish of Idomeneo, the king of Crete, to offer a human sacrifice to Neptune in thanks for his safe return to his kingdom. The gods and fate being inconstant, this unfortunate is his son Idamante. The king refuses to kill his son, deciding to banish him instead, which the gods take revenge on the island.
There is also a love triangle, as Idamante is captivated by the Trojan princess Ilia, whom he rescued from a storm, as well as the object of the passions of Elettra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The tender love between Ilia and Idamante, however, pushes Neptune to spare the life of Idamante, who becomes king after the abdication of his father.
Ponnelle took no liberties with the direction in this staging of Idomenee; if anything, it was a bit old-fashioned even by the standards of the time, particularly the rather static placement of the principals and chorus, which often stand still. The decorations, made up of columns and backgrounds painted in sepia tones, are faithful representations of classic scenes from Antiquity. A massive bust of Neptune dominates the scene at key moments. The only injection of levity, intentional or not, was the opening of Neptune’s stone eyelids when the god speaks at the end of the opera, which drew some laughs during this performance.
The production, however, provides the perfect setting for the music to take center stage and Honeck led a particularly light and lyrical performance. Mozart’s beautiful melodies flowed seamlessly, creating an almost trance-like effect. None of the drama or intensity of the score was missing, but it was a performance on a particularly intimate scale. If Honeck returns to the Met, no doubt another side of his musical personality will be revealed, but for his impressive debut he has proven himself to be a Mozartian of rare refinement.
Tenor Michael Spyres made his 2020 Met debut in Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and had considerable success in major European houses, mostly in operatic roles. The Missouri-born singer has a most unusual voice due to its extreme range; he is often promoted like this rare notice, a baritone. Aside from some particularly rich descents in the lower frequencies of his voice, Spyres was in full tenor mode as Idomeneo, however.
The staging precludes almost any major physical displays of passion, but Spyres commanded attention and authority with her vocals. It captured the nobility of a king and the intricacies of a father who unwittingly caused his son’s impending death. He explored all of Idomeneo’s conflicted emotions in a tale of bravery from “Fuor del mar”, in which the king wonders if he is at as much personal risk ashore in his own kingdom as he was shipwrecked at sea. .
Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey was a noble and dignified Idamante. On the surface, Lindsey embodied a young man in conflict with filial duty and romantic love. Her voice is light, but carried effortlessly through the theatre. For all her beauty, some of the most effective moments where she lost all the color and vibrato in her voice to express her grief or despair. Lindsey’s singing of Idamante’s two great arias, “No, la morte” and “Non ho colpa”, was haunting, but her best moments came in Idamante’s duet with Ying Fang’s Ilia, “S ‘io non moro a questi accenti”.
Fang was a vision of understated beauty, whether she was dressed in a flowing pleated white dress or a more lavish champagne-colored gown. A singer of exceptional poise and elegance, Fang possesses a clear, limpid lyrical soprano voice and adorned Mozart’s melodies with hauntingly effortless coloratura. Her bountiful gifts were on full display, however, in “Zeffiretti lusinghieri”, in which she asks the Zephyrs to tell Idamante of her love for him.
As Elettra, soprano Federica Lombardi epitomized glamor in her monumental late 18th century dress. The beauty of her voice and the refinement of her singing were comparable to any singer on stage. Besides Elettra’s frequent outbursts of rage, Lombardi created an almost sympathetic image of a deranged woman despised in love. His catastrophic “Oh! Smania…. D’oreste e d’Aiace” – one of the greatest rage arias ever composed – was sensational, vividly reflecting the moment when Elettra perceives herself as being abused and betrayed by all. Exhausted from her torrential outbursts, Elettra de Lombardi collapsed on stage, only to be carried off unceremoniously by several warm-hearted men.
Tenor Paolo Fanale displayed a beautiful lyrical tenor voice in a compassionate portrayal of Idomeneo’s confidant, Arbace. As High Priest, Issachah Savage took to the stage with enormous energy and presence, with a commanding voice to match.
In Idomenee, Mozart wrote choral music that is perhaps unmatched in any of his other operas. The Met choir sang beautifully. The most impressive were the men of “Pieta! Numi, Pieta! », or the Choir of Sailors. The Met Orchestra was also unrivaled in responding to Honeck’s delicate but authoritative touch. Rarely has the orchestra sounded brighter and more transparent than under Honeck’s direction.
Idomenee continues until October 20. metopera.org