Idomeneo is the earliest of Mozart’s major operas and, traditionally, the least popular. It opened in Munich in 1781, a year before the Vienna debut of The Abduction from the Seraglio, which was a smash-hit. In Munich, a press notice praised Idomeneo‘s set design but forgot to mention Mozart. Mozart himself was not completely satisfied, and, in 1786, made substantial changes for a restaging. In 1931, the Vienna State Opera wanted to celebrate Idomeneo’s 150th anniversary, but thought the opera could use a little more work: Unfortunately Mozart wasn’t available, so they gave the job to Richard Strauss, who replaced a third of the music and had the Italian libretto redone in German.
The Met did not stage Idomeneo until 1982, with Pavarotti in the title roll and James Levine, now Director Emeritus, conducting. Levine returned for this year’s season premiere and received an ovation before each curtain, though the second-act applause was intercepted by a lady in a green dress, ponderously searching for something on her first-row seat and resolutely unaware she was exactly under Levine’s spotlight. Levine encouraged the surrounding audience to get up and absorb their share of applause, but they modestly declined.
The staging and costume design by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle are also from the 1982 production: Tall Grecian ruins with a barnacular seashell motif frame a series of painted scrims which alternately hide and reveal a towering stone mask of Neptune. The costumes are mostly 18th century-style long coats, knickers and white bibs, with a touch of Greco-Roman armor. In the first act, the Trojan prisoners arrive in a confusing mix of Chinese straw hats and at least one turban, but, aside from that muddle, the effect is reassuringly traditional.
The score adheres largely to Mozart’s 1781 original, in which the role of Idomeneo’s son, the gallant Idamante, calls for a castrato. Today, castrati are awfully hard to come by and so these roles—wildly popular in Handel and for much the 18th century—are typically filled by mezzo-soprani. This production gives the part to Alice Coote, who has spent much of her career in castrato roles. While she does not move like a woman on stage, neither does she move like a man: she rather has a tendency to fidget about like a child who, having swiped something from his teacher’s desk, is trying to hide it behind his back. And though a mezzo can sing the notes intended for a castrato, the timbre is quite different. It would have been exciting to see this role filled by Anthony Roth Costanzo, the astonishing countertenor whose 2014 appearance in the Met’s Die Fledermaus was a high point of the production.
This Idomeneo benefits from the tremendous voice and personality of Matthew Polenzani in the title role, and a strong though histrionic Elettra by Elza van den Heever. But, above all, Nadine Sierra as Princess Ilia is utterly captivating: Miss Sierra has a natural grace on stage which cannot be taught. Even during the occasionally awkward choreography, or in those challenging moments when a soloist has to figure out how to look when another soloist is doing the singing, she was always supremely in her element. Her second act aria “Se il padre perdei” (“If I lost my father”) was a lovely rendering of one of the first truly beautiful moments in Mozartian opera. Were the Met to bring back their greatest triumph of all time—the Chagall Magic Flute—Miss Sierra would make a sublime Pamina.
That Idomeneo has recently joined the canon of regularly produced works is a function of the world’s great opera houses getting a little bored with themselves, like a restoration expert casting around for increasingly rare and difficult pieces to salvage. There are plenty of great Mozart operas, and the Met could have its hands full without ever getting to Mozart’s “nearly great” ones. That said, this opera has great moments. It is a microcosm of musical development in which Mozart gains strength and skill in every act. Youthful but underpowered at first, Mozart hooks us with Princess Ilia’s aria in the second act, and pulls us in with Idemeneo’s following “Fuor del mar” (“Beyond the sea”). By the third act, the audience is completely engaged: The choral “Oh voto tremendo!” (“Oh terrible vow”), with fifty voices on stage, builds tension relentlessly in a manner that looks forward to Don Giovanni. The closing tonic chord then receives an added seventh and becomes the dominant of a new key, pushing us, with a gentle breath on the back of the neck, into a slow march that foreshadows the “trials” passage of The Magic Flute. As King Idomeneo emerges to sing his moving aria begging Neptune to spare his people, we feel that Mozart has finally arrived. And if this arrival comes too late to make Idomeneo a uniform success, it nonetheless completes a compact and beautiful transformation which we are privileged to behold.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard