Met’s ‘Idomeneo’ Revival Displays Lasting Charm Of A Ponnelle Classic

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A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo.’ (Photos by Karen Almond / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — Sept. 28 marked a happy occasion at the Metropolitan Opera, with a resoundingly persuasive revival of the company’s 40-year old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Idomeneo. Ponnelle’s work on this opera and Mozart’s other, late-career opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, was instrumental in these creations joining the international repertoire — and in persuading James Levine to undertake them at the Met. Many audience members, myself included, first encountered Idomeneo, a gorgeously scored work about the aftermath of the Trojan War and its personal costs, in Ponnelle’s aptly neo-classical production. Ponnelle based his concept largely on Giambattista Piranesi’s spectacular etchings of Greco-Roman ruins. It remains well worth seeing, especially given the strong current casting.

Idomeneo — boasting more, and more varied, choral work than any of Mozart’s other “big seven” operas — depends very much on its conductor. Austria’s Manfred Honeck, the longtime music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, made a successful company debut in the pit. Though most of his recent work has been symphonic, he brought operatic experience to bear, delivering Mozart’s fine overture crisply and keeping the momentum going in a score that can sometimes seem overburdened with recitatives. Unlike some Central European conductors hewing to the Mahler “as written” tradition (sample Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Karl Böhm’s studio Idomeneo recordings for evidence), Honeck encouraged his skilled principals to use appoggiaturas generously and to decorate the repeated A sections of da capo arias. Most of the playing was precise, though some bassoon flubs marred Ying Fang’s lovely traversal of Ilia’s “Se il padre perdei.”

Kate Lindsey as Idamante, Michael Spyres as Idomeneo, and Ying Fang as Ilia in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo.’

Idomeneo in 1982 was not well known in New York — though, as with many now-standard operas (Clemenza, Donizetti’s Tudor threesome, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos) — New York City Opera laid the groundwork, with Gerald Freedman’s 1975 staging, led by Julius Rudel, generally ill-received except for the Ilia and Elettra, Veronica Tyler and Maralin Niska. The opera had its American premiere only in 1947, at Tanglewood. Conducted and staged by Boris Goldovsky with Joseph Laderoute (Jaquino in Arturo Toscanini’s recorded Fidelio) in the title role and Met artists Anne Bollinger (Idamante), Paula Lechner (Elettra), Frank Guarrera (Arbace/High Priest), and Mildred Miller (Cretan Woman). The other Cretan Woman was Black soprano Adele Addison, a Leonard Bernstein favorite in New York Philharmonic concerts and recordings — and, like Miller, fortunately still among us. As if in tribute to Addison, the Met revival deploys two gifted Black young artists, soprano Amani Cole-Felder and mezzo-soprano Cierra Byrd, in these short but musically telling roles. In the High Priest’s more substantial duties, Issachah Savage serves notice of an impactful, well-trained dramatic tenor deserving greater local exposure.

The evening proved a triumph for tenor Michael Spyres, not a stranger to New York area venues (Bard, Caramoor, Carnegie Hall, the 92nd Street Y) but withal in his first staged Met performances, following Damnation de Faust concerts weeks before the pandemic’s onset. Spyres’ astounding command of “baritenorial” tessitura suits Idomeneo perfectly, and he dispatches its technical hurdles with aplomb. He acts with face, body, and voice at a level few opera singers — and certainly few tenors — achieve. Fang sang one scheduled Ilia in the last revival, in 2017. She returns to the role with added vocal projection of her lovely timbre and somewhat greater verbal variety in the recitatives. But by Act Three’s “Zeffiretti lusinghieri,” dispatched with flawless instrumental beauty, I — perhaps influenced by what her two Italian colleagues and also Spyres were able to achieve in their well-enunciated singing — was anxious for Fang to add some audible consonants to the mix. What she now offers is remarkably beautiful, but there’s room for improvement.

Paolo Fanale as Arbace, Federica Lombardi as Elettra, and Issachah Savage as the High Priest in ‘Idomeneo.’

Of eight previous company Elettras, only 1994’s Luciana Serra was a native Italian, so Federica Lombardi is most welcome on that count. She is also a terrific Mozart stylist with the chops to tackle both the lyrical and agitated sides to the spurned Greek princess’ music and a strikingly beautiful stage figure. One aspect of Ponnelle’s staging that seems dated and misogynistic is the treatment of Elettra as a campily crazed Mean Girl from the opera’s inception. She wields her spectacular pannier dress like an aircraft carrier and casts shade on Ilia throughout. This vehemence may have aided 1982’s Hildegard Behrens, a fierce singing actress inadequate to some of the role’s vocal demands, but it does a potentially nuanced character a disservice. Her final “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” — cited in a review of the Met premiere on the company archive site as “probably the first ‘mad’ scene in all opera,” illustrating how little even professional music critics knew about the Handelian canon four decades ago and here played as a full-scale pounding and scratching freak-out — always wins cheers from those who like their opera more demented than most of what Idomeneo offers. Fortunately, Lombardi manages it with relative dignity and vocally upholds the standards set on this stage by Carol Vaness and Cheryl Studer.

Mozart, as composers often did according to 18th-century practice, made some alterations to his own score for different circumstances. For Vienna performances five years after 1781’s Munich premiere, he changed Idamante from a castrato to a tenor role and cut or altered several numbers. The NYCO run employed tenors as Idamante, but the Met has always used mezzo-sopranos — Frederica von Stade, Susanne Mentzer, and Anne Sofie von Otter, all excelling — and that choice is now fairly standard internationally, though I’ve heard tenor Idamantes at Strasbourg (2007) and Frankfurt (2013). The Met audience seems to love Kate Lindsey, visually a boyish prince and a commendably committed interpreter. Her thorough musicianship disappoints only in one respect: As with Agrippina‘s coked-up Nerone, she overinflects some recitatives, slowing them down and affecting an almost vibrato-free delivery, a near-Expressionist effect. To my ear, it’s a good rather than a great instrument (in Clemenza‘s terms, an Annio rather than a Sesto), highly adequate to the work here but not as memorable or lustrous a personal timbre as her colleagues here wield.          

Manfred Honeck leading an ‘Idomeneo’ rehearsal at the Met.

The Met version follows most of Mozart’s 1786 cuts. The routine cutting of “Se colà be’fati è scritto,” Arbace’s second aria, is no great loss, though this revival’s Paolo Fanale brought a welcome fresh tone and well-projected native Italian to the royal adviser’s role. But the Met should restore at least the initial A section of Idomeneo’s final and crucial aria, “Torna la pace.” Pavarotti sang it in 1982, quite well, but at some point it vanished from revivals. As it stands now, after the king’s impassioned recitative bequeathing rule to his son and new daughter-in-law — which Spyres with real artisty ended with “O me felice” sung pianisssimo — the chorus erupts abruptly in an emphatic D major chorus hailing his wisdom. More sense of transition is needed.

Much has been made of Pavarotti’s presence in the Met premiere. (He had sung a sterling Idamante at Glyndebourne many years before.) His native diction was always a pleasure, so the recitatives went well, and working with Levine (and doubtless many coaches), he did fair justice to the role’s cantilena portions, though of need greatly simplifying “Fuor del mar.” Spyres delivers the aria, in its full-out version plus added cadenzas and decorations, with staggering breath control and confident technical mastery, rightly winning a sustained ovation. In 1982, the Italian superstar only took on seven performances, leaving the rest to William Lewis and Herman Malamood). When announced to return to the production in 1991, Pavarotti absented himself altogether, opening the door for the exquisitely sung Idomeneo of Anthony Rolfe Johnson. The debuting English tenor fortunately recorded the opera with John Eliot Gardiner around the same time.

The downside of Pavarotti’s legacy in Ponnelle’s production is, as it were, this non-singing actor’s enduring silhouette. The king’s elaborate costume and wig make Idomeneo look like anything but a battle-hardened warrior, and four decades of Idomeneos have been saddled with it. Fortunately, Spyres moves easily and with point onstage. Even the set and blocking recalls Pavarotti: During Arbace and Ilia’s emotionally crucial Act Two arias, the king sits in a broad stone chair facing away from the audience, so we can’t gauge his reaction. Revival directors, including this season’s Daniel Rigazzi, have helpfully varied some of the blocking, but the problem remains. Nevertheless, admirers of Mozart operas will find a great deal to enjoy in the high-level work of Honeck and his forces.