heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
On 20 November 2015, La Fenice's 2015-16 opera season in Venice was inaugurated with Mozart's Idomeneo, Re di Creta. According to recent opinion polls, La Fenice is the most efficient Italian opera house. It features twenty titles every year and holds performances some five nights a week. The inauguration of its opera season is almost as important as that of La Scala. I was in the audience. This year, the management opted for a sober inauguration: no tuxedos, no evening dresses, non deluxe dinner in the foyer, but a minute of silence for the victims of the Paris terrorist attack — one of them was a young Venetian researcher — and the Italian and French national anthems before the overture started.
Idomeneo, Re di Creta was intended to graduate the young Mozart as a major European composer. It was commissioned by the Bavarian King's Munich Theatre: however, his 1781 version had only a few performances and nothing is known about the planned 1786 Vienna staging. In the twentieth century, Richard Strauss showed what a complex and marvellous jewel Idomeneo, Re di Creta is. It features some of the most brilliant orchestration in Mozart's operas. For several years, Strauss' re-elaboration was in the repertory of many opera houses. After World War II, the practice was to go back to the original 1781 version; Strauss' re-elaboration had a few performances not too many years ago in Martina Franca (a Summer festival in Southern Italy). The 1786 version is rarely performed, even though it was in New York City Opera's repertory for a few years.
In modern times, Idomeneo, Re di Creta has very often been given a psychological reading: it is shown as a mirror of the affection and tensions between Wolfgang Amadeus and his father Leopold. This main theme is intertwined with a complicated sentimental plot: Idamante is in love with the Trojan slave Princess Ilia, whilst Elettra (who just killed her mother and is wandering through Greece) has a rather carnal crush on him and tries all she can to bring the young Prince under her bed sheets. In addition, during his stormy travel home from Troy, King Idomeneo vowed to kill the first person he would meet on the shore as a sacrifice to Neptune. This person happens to be his own son, Idamante. Thus Idomeneo forgoes his promise and his kingdom is terrorized by monsters. Eventually, there is a harmonious solution for everyone, but Elettra. In short, Idomeneo, Re di Creta anticipates nineteenth century melodrama, especially in the astonishing third act quartet.
The musical aspects of the performance were excellent. In the pit, British conductor Jeffrey Tate showed the marvels of Mozart's orchestration. Tate and the orchestra provided a terse, dramatic interpretation of this brilliant score: from the first note, we sensed that Idomeneo, Re di Creta is a new kind of opera seria in which not all the eighteenth century rules (eg da capo) are followed, because it is in the hands of a genius (Mozart). The strings, clarinets and other woodwind were just magnificent, and their deployment during the critical passages of recitative was remarkable. Instrumental inventiveness is matched by harmonic daring. Rightly, Tate didn't separate or 'close' the different 'numbers' with a cadence. Several 'numbers' flow into the next recitative, as if to avoid leaving time for the applause.
Brenden Gunnell was a solid Idomeneo, a bari-tenor with a very vast register. Monica Bacelli as Idamante was outstanding, especially remarkable in rising from pianissimo and mezza voce to the heights of acute. On the soprano side, Ekaterina Sadovnikova was an Ilia to be remembered for her timbre, colours and ability to ascend gently to a high register. Michaela Kaune was a hysterical and violent Elettra.
On other occasions I have praised the stage direction of South African Alessandro Talevi (Champagne not Orange Juice, 8 June 2014 and A Philological Tosca, 8 March 2015) and prefer to forget this pretentious reading of Idonomeneo, Re di Creta as a clash of civilizations in some improbable part of the world.