Monday, November 3, 2008

"Idomeneo" in Golden Handcuffs

Last Tuesday I went to the San Francisco Opera to see Idomeneo, my first time ever attending a live production of a Mozart opera. And while I often think that Mozart makes everything better, this Idomeneo proved to me that even Mozart's genius is not enough to compensate for a relatively dull libretto and staging. Not that the production was embarassingly bad--it was just over-decorous and polite. Nor do I mean to suggest that only transgressive Regietheater productions are relevant in this day and age. But an opera production has to have some freshness to it, and some serious thought about "how can this old work speak to us?", rather than relying on stock ideas of beauty and tradition.

I knew I was in for a pretty but lifeless production from the first scene, which features Ilia, a captive princess, lamenting her fate. But she's wearing one of the most exquisitely rich and lovely gowns I have ever seen, and around her wrists are a pair of dainty golden handcuffs. This is supposed to be a poor orphaned prisoner? To me, this is a betrayal of the libretto, not as shocking but just as wrong-headed as that infamous German production of Idomeneo that depicted the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad onstage.

Not that the libretto of Idomeneo is the greatest thing, in any case. The witty opera blog The Reverberate Hills cites the "lack of onstage sea-monster action" as a reason to dislike Idomeneo, and while that's kind of facetious, there's also some truth to it. When a sea monster is supposedly terrorizing and eating the citizens of Crete, Ilia comes onstage singing "Gentle breezes, tell my beloved that I adore him!" It's prettified rather than dramatic.

Idomeneo does have some powerful scenes based around its central conflict: King Idomeneo promises to sacrifice to Neptune the first living thing he encounters after he survives a shipwreck, but that turns out to be his own son, Idamante. Too much of the story, however, is told via monologue and soliloquy, instead of dialogue and ensemble. In the subplot, Princess Ilia and Princess Elettra both sing arias about their love for Idamante and their jealousy toward their rival--but if it was up to me, the women would confront each other in a catfight!

Only two of the four major singers in the San Francisco production really impressed me. Tenor Kurt Streit gave a thrilling rendition of Idomeneo's tour-de-force aria "Fuor dal mar." Sometimes his voice sounded almost as though he was belting, which maybe isn't "proper" operatic technique, but was very exciting. He also was a strong actor: at the end of Act One, as the citizens sang a chorus of thanksgiving that their king had returned to him, you could see Idomeneo's struggling to perform his kingly duties while knowing that he had to sacrifice his son.

Meanwhile, Genia Kühmeier, who sang Ilia, was simply a lovely and graceful performer in every respect, with a clear and warm soprano voice and the ability to play a sweet ingenue role without coming across as fakey. The beginning of Act II, with Kühmeier's aria "Se il padre perdei" leading into Streit's "Fuor dal mar," was one of my favorite stretches of the opera.

On Tuesday night, I saw an understudy in the role of Idamante: Daniela Mack, one of the SF Opera's Adler Fellows. (Alice Coote, the scheduled singer, had injured her back.) When I heard Mack sing at the Opera in the Park concert, I thought "She seems nervous. She needs to warm up more. Her vibrato is all over the place." And I had the same impression seeing her as Idamante. Granted, she was probably nervous, but in her first aria, her vibrato was very prominent and made her singing sound approximate rather than spot-on. She did get better as she went on, but still, it bothers me that both times I've heard her, she didn't sound ready when she stepped onstage.

Iano Tamar, as Elettra, looked the part of the haughty and vengeful princess, but vocally, she wasn't a good fit. Her voice got weak just when it should have swelled with urgency at the climaxes of her arias. Also, her last aria is basically a hissy fit about how everybody else got a happy ending while she is left to suffer, and the director decided to have her tear her clothes in rage. Unfortunately, like everything else about this production of Idomeneo, the gesture was overly polite and muted. Elettra ripped at a panel on her overskirt that had been designed to come away--but it was only a single gesture, choreographed rather than deeply felt. I realize I was probably spoiled by seeing Natalie Dessay act and sing up a storm as Lucia di Lammermoor, and not everyone can do that--but still!

In the end, I think that those golden handcuffs Ilia wore in the first scene provide a perfect metaphor for this production of Idomeneo. They're nice to look at, and they're not painful, but they're still shackles, restricting freedom of movement and putting a damper on the proceedings.

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera. Top: Kühmeier as Ilia. Middle: Streit as Idomeneo. Bottom: Tamar as Elettra.

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