Idomeneo

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Idomeneo Credit: Metropolitan Opera

Idomeneo, written when Mozart was 24 and premièred in Munich in 1781, three days after his 25th birthday, is said to have been the favourite of all his operas.

This revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1982 production was seen at The Met in New York in 2017, when it was again conducted by James Levine, who had contributed so much to its original success. Matthew Polenzani is cast as Idomeneo, the Cretan king, who helped the Greeks defeat the Trojans in the war to end all wars.

The opera is dominated by the god Neptune who is a powerful presence throughout, even though he never appears on stage. At the back of the stage, reaching to the flies, there is an enormous image of Neptune’s head, his eyes hollowed out and his mouth gaping wide.

Neptune, as was his wont, had created a storm at sea and the boat carrying Idomeneo back to Crete was in danger of sinking. Idomeneo vowed, if he survived, he would kill the first living creature he met. The first person he met was his son, Idamante. Polenzani, in a powerful performance, gives a vivid account of his inner torment. The anguish is deeply felt as he rages against his fate and refuses to commit the barbaric act.

Alice Cooke is Idamante (a breeches role) and she has been cast for her voice. It is impossible to believe that Cooke, given her age, could be Polenzani’s son; the relationship feels more like mother and son.

Idamante is loved by Elettra, a Cretan princess, and Ilia, a Trojan princess, who has been taken prisoner. Sweet and innocent, Ilia feels sleeping with the enemy is a betrayal of her people. Nadine Sierra’s arias are particularly affecting.

Elettra, insanely jealous, becomes totally unhinged. Elza van den Heever (wearing a magnificent 18th century pannier costume) flamboyantly, vocally and physically, hijacks the opera every time she opens her mouth.

There is also strong support from Alan Opie as Arbace, the king’s confidant, who has one of the best arias. There is so much to enjoy. There is a great quartet in act III and the chorus (a tsunami in their own right) has an urgent prayer, pleading with Neptune for Anger to yield to Mercy. The gods are cruel and pitiless and unlikely to listen to any plea from mere mortals.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch