The North Carolina School of the Arts and the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute selected a choice and rarely-performed opera, Idomeneo, with which to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The opening night performance, heard February 1 in the Stevens Center, was the first of three Triad presentations.
This was the composer's third and greatest opera seria; the form, with its static settings, elaborate repeated portions of da capo arias, and formal conventions, was already declining in popularity when it debuted January 29, 1781. Keys to the golden age of opera seria were the vocal athleticism and fireworks of castrati, male singers shorn before puberty of the chance of fatherhood. (Restoration of this aspect of Baroque performance-practice has found the early music movement totally unenthusiastic.) Revivals have depended on countertenors, transpositions for tenors – the least satisfactory approach – or the use of sopranos or mezzos. The opera contains some of the composer's finest music, written when he was at the height of his creative powers.
All opere serie have complex plots involving the nobility, mythical heroes, and gods. Plots are often drawn from the literature and myths of the classical Greeks and Romans. Characters in love at cross purposes surpass modern soap operas in their complexity. Rash oaths to the gods always lead to high drama. The opera is named after the King of Crete, Idomeneo. His son, Idamante, is in love with Ilia, a captive Trojan Princess, a role originally cast for the castrato Vincenzo del Prato. Idamante is loved by the Greek Princess Electra, a fiery harridan when thwarted. Briefer roles are the prince's friend Arbace, the High Priest of Neptune, and an off stage voice. A major role is played by the chorus. The crux of the drama is Idomeneo's horrendous choice: returning from Troy (remember your Homer), his ship is caught in a storm conjured up by Neptune. To appease the deity, the king promises to sacrifice the first innocent person he sees upon coming safely ashore. That person is his son Idamante, and all the action of the opera comes from the king's failure to fulfill his vow and the rampaging monsters, etc., that Neptune unleashes. In the end, a heavenly voice, presumably that of Zeus, moved by the self-less love of Ilia and Idamante, intercedes. Idomeneo is banished, his son becomes king and marries Ilia, and Elettra has a terrific mad scene and leaves in a snit.
There were no significant weaknesses in any of the leads in the February 1 cast. All readily projected without strain and had exemplary diction. Full use was made of dynamic nuances combined with facial expressions and body language, which fully conveyed each character's dilemma and conflicted emotions. The four main characters were sung by Fletcher Opera Fellows. CVNC has praised their work in NCSA/FOI productions of Britten's Rape of Lucretia, Donizetti's Belisario, and Mechem's Tartuffe, along with a recent NC Symphony program of operatic excerpts.
Aside from the opening of Act I, Mozart rarely gives Idomeneo a scene without singing. To the role of the monarch, John Kawa brought plenty of stamina as well as a well-rounded tenor. He fully conveyed the sense of his character being emotionally torn by his dreadful choice. Mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce sang Idamante with warm tone and focused intonation. The Prince's constant struggles among his love for his long-lost father, filial duty, and his newly-found passionate love for Ilia were bought vividly to life. Much of Act I, s.1, is dominated by a gamut of emotions felt by Ilia – her desire for revenge for the death of her father and brother and her passion for Idamante. Sara Pardo's pure and seamless soprano and her sensitive use of vocal color were ideal for this role. With a wide arsenal of facial tics, sneers, and looks that shot daggers, dramatic soprano Kristen Yarborough was terrific as Elettra; she was a commanding presence, now imperious, now plotting, now raging.
The even and pleasing timbre of tenor Erich Barbera was welcome in the role of Arbace, Idomeneo's confidant. The sophomore shows great promise. Tenor Brian Shumaker, a third-year undergraduate, brought considerable humanity and compassion to the potentially cardboard figure of the High Priest of Neptune. Seven students had brief but prominent roles as men and women of Troy or Crete, singing well-blended duets. The attractive tone and strong projection of tenor Joshua Hudson stood out in these ensembles and in his brief solo as a messenger. From above, the firm bass of Jonathan Merritt lent divine command as "The Voice." The superb opera chorus performed marvelously as various Cretans and Trojan prisoners. (Kawa is a student of Marion Pratnicki. Pardo, Barbera, Pierce, Shumaker, and Yarborough are students of Marilyn Taylor.)
Stage Director Will Graham is high on my short list of opera directors who don't go contrary to composers' directions or needlessly update opera. This production is set in a plausibly mythical Crete in the time of Homer's Troy. Graham's imaginative movement of characters on the stage contributed immensely toward keeping the opera from being static. A prime example of this involved the dramatization of Ilia's conflicts in her great Act I solo. Her anxious and jittery movement around the stage mirrored her inner conflicts and helped give the action a sense of energy and forward flow.
The sets, designed by Kathryn Kawecki, and lighting, designed by Michael Clark, were breathtaking. The multi-level unit set with Corinthian columns on each side featured an upper landing with a view of the sea, a broken flight of stairs, and ample space on stage for sparse details such as furniture, a sacrificial altar with an octopus in relief, broken spars and sails, etc. Beautifully-painted drop curtains allowed scene changes while singers continued the action or reflected on their situations. (For example, with a quick lighting adjustment, a calm seashore scene became a transparent scrim, allowing a view of the giant head of Neptune bobbing in the waves before Idomeneo's storm-tossed ship crashed onto the shore.) The costumes, designed by Erin Nugent, were colorful. Ilia's serene and simple robes with flowing lines contrasted well with the complex, layered look of Elettra. As a fan of the French Impressionists, I want to praise the unknown hands that painted the superb clouds on the drop curtains – they were simply outstanding. Kudos to everyone from the School of Design and Production who, with the School of Music, helped bring off this joint effort.
With a clear and unmistakable beat, James Allbritten kept tight coordination between the stage and the superb student musicians in the pit. The strings seemed to play Mozart's rapid runs effortlessly. The brass and woodwinds were excellent, playing with refined color and tone. The continuo, played by cellist Lachezar Kostov and an unidentified harpsichord player*, was excellent . Mozart gives no cover, and I heard nary a clinker.
Nancy E. Goldsmith's supertitles were easy to read and well timed, but a friend wondered why translations were not given when lines were repeated.
Note: Idomeneo will be repeated in Winston-Salem on 2/5. See our calendar for details.
*Updated 2/5: The harpsichordist was Angela Vanstory Ward, FOI coach and accompanist.