Breaking the Mold

Classic Arts Features   Breaking the Mold
Roger Pines explores the creation of Mozart's landmark opera Idomeneo, King of Crete, running through February 13 at Houston Grand Opera.

Idomeneo was the tenth completed opera of Mozart's career‹not bad for a composer who celebrated his 25th birthday only two days before the premiere. But this opera left his other nine in the dust, so clearly was it an enormous, not to say monumental, step forward. Suddenly Mozart was bringing vivid personalities to life, in music conveying a wrenching emotional power he had not begun to approach in his previous writing for the voice. Mozart's operatic maturity truly began with Idomeneo.

Sadly, this opera was totally neglected during the composer's lifetime (besides the world-premiere production, he heard only a private concert performance five years later). What a disappointment that must have been for Mozart, who greatly valued the work, in spite of the considerable stress he endured while composing it. German and Austrian audiences heard Idomeneo sporadically through the 19th century. Its unique beauties were revealed as never before when Britain's Glyndebourne Festival Opera presented a now-legendary production in the early 1950s. Nearly half a century later, the dearth of performers with sufficient sensitivity and technique for the difficult principal roles has helped to keep this opera a work on the edge of, rather than entrenched in, the standard repertoire.

If Idomeneo is not exactly a "magic" title for opera companies (as are, of course, Figaro, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni), one cannot blame the music; for sheer beauty, this work can stand comparison with any other Mozart stage work. On the other hand, perhaps the dramatic content may seem to some audiences a shade unrelieved in its air of resolute seriousness. But look at precisely what goes on here: In Idomeneo, the private agony of public personalities is communicated as powerfully and sincerely as would be the case with Verdi decades later. The father-son relationship in particular emerges with extraordinary sensitivity. Emotions throughout affect the listener profoundly, unlike those of so many works in the era of opera seria, of which Idomeneo is both the summit and the turning point.

Mozart's opera seria predecessors had taken noble, historical personages and plugged them into dramatic situations invariably focusing on issues of love, betrayal, duty, and honor. The musical structure was rigid: aria, recitative, aria, with barely an ensemble to be heard and generally no chorus. Mozart created a hybrid: Here was Italianate melodic flow, but applied to a work in which‹as in the French tradition‹chorus and ballet played substantial roles, and even more important, fluidity governed recitative and aria. Dramatic continuity was essential to Mozart: in any scene of Idomeneo, notice how often an aria does not end formally, but moves directly into the subsequent recitative. The recitative itself may be very aria-like, moving from orchestra to keyboard accompaniment and back again, aligned perfectly to the needs of the drama. A singer who does not project every textual nuance is lost in Idomeneo, where recitatives must be delivered with a cogency worthy of Euripides or Shakespeare.

Idomeneo came into Mozart's life at a time when the young composer was desperately anxious to create a new opera. Comedy, however, did not interest him in this period‹if he could not write a serious opera in German, he would have been happy working in Italian or even French. He had set his sights on Munich, and was thus ecstatic when the Elector of Bavaria (who had recently moved his court from Mannheim to Munich) asked for an opera to celebrate the 1781 carnival season. Mozart began work on Idomeneo in his home town of Salzburg, to a libretto by Giambattista Varesco. A Jesuit priest and poet, Varesco was chaplain for the Archbishop of Salzburg, who employed Mozart as court organist.

Varesco based his libretto on that of Antoine Danchet, written for a work premiered in Paris in1712: Idomenée, André Campra's tragédie en musique. Idomenée also boasts an impressive role for chorus, but unlike Mozart's version, the French opera has a tragic ending: The hapless king of Crete kills his son after going insane. Danchet's text inspired Varesco‹not an especially experienced librettist‹to flights of high-flown lyricism, but also to stiltedness and verbosity (most irksome in the character of Arbace). The composer was unhappy with his Italian collaborator: Once Mozart had left for Munich, he communicated with Varesco by using his father Leopold as intermediary. Always intensely interested in his son's artistic activities, Leopold added many insightful comments in his letters back, contributing significantly to the libretto.

The opera premiered successfully on January 29, 1781, at Munich's Residenztheater. Among the principal singers were several already well acquainted with Mozart. The most experienced of the group, Anton Raaff, created the title role.

Incredibly, Raaff was 66 years old at the time of Idomeneo. Mozart was used to tailoring roles to the skills of particular singers, but he went beyond the call of duty in Raaff's case. Raaff had made his reputation on particular excellence in cantabile melodies, and he was still extraordinarily dexterous in complicated florid passages. Mozart provided his Idomeneo with more of the former than the latter, although he did reward Raaff with "Fuor del mar," one of the most demanding of all Mozart tenor arias. At the same time, the composer‹who adored singers and was anxious for them to perform well‹took great pains to keep the tessitura manageable for Raaff's aging voice.

As has been the case with more than a few tenors since Raaff, that gentleman possessed a considerable ego, to say the least (likewise tenor Domenico de' Panzacchi, who insisted on an unnecessary Act Three aria for his character, Arbace). Had Mozart not stood his ground with Raaff, we would not have the magnificent third-act quartet, Idomeneo's musical high point; Raaff accepted that number very reluctantly, having assumed that, at this particular moment in the drama, he would be given a showy coloratura aria. A hopeless actor, Raaff's failings in that regard provided Mozart with constant frustration during rehearsals.

To judge from Idomeneo's music, however, Raaff still could offer Mozart polished technique and interpretive authority. We need listen to no more than the Cretan king's somber opening recitative, or the devastating recognition scene that follows. Raaff, too, was surely unafraid to stand motionless for lengthy periods and simply pull the expressiveness from some deep place inside himself. This is one of the most difficult challenges in any operatic role, but it is required of every principal in Idomeneo. There are no crutches here, nothing to hold onto except one's own musicality and emotions.

Collaborating with Raaff may have caused Mozart some difficulties, but it was sheer delight compared with the latter's coaching of castrato Vincenzo dal Prato, who portrayed Idamante. Mozart had his hands full with this singer (his exact contemporary in age), and fumed that the experience was like teaching a role to a child. He was greatly distressed at Dal Prato's poor vocal schooling, not to mention his catastrophic ineptitude onstage (an even worse actor than Raaff, it seems). One can easily imagine Mozart's dismay‹any conscientious singer would rise to the occasion when handed a role like this, in which the music molds the character with such moving sincerity.

Idamante does present a basic question: Who should sing the role? Dal Prato was most probably a high mezzo, but since we obviously have no castrati nowadays, we accept a female mezzo-soprano in the role. The composer himself makes the choice a bit trickier: There is a tenor version of the role, prepared in 1786 for a private performance by nobly born amateur singers in Vienna. But would Mozart have created that version if a certain baron had not wished to portray Idamante? A quartet of two tenors and two sopranos seems unsatisfactory, particularly when one can achieve splendid contrast with the warmly glowing tone of a fine mezzo-soprano. As to the question of verisimilitude, we have numerous outstanding female mezzos today who understand the needs of "trouser roles" and act them without embarrassment. In other words, it's no contest.

As for the two Idomeneo sopranos, the composer created a remarkable contrast in both vocal and dramatic character. (The creators, Dorothea (Ilia) and Elisabeth (Elettra) Wendling, highly accomplished singers both, were sisters-in-law and the wives of musicians.) Like The Magic Flute's Pamina, Ilia grows emotionally in the course of the opera; already in her first, despairing utterances, she is much more than a demure ingenue dispensing sweetness and light. The opera's opening recitative, which leads into the agitated "Padre, germani, addio," reveals a figure in absolute turmoil, almost Aïda-like (a princess in love with her country's enemy). Later, in her "Zeffiretti lusinghieri," the girl's feelings for Idamante inspire one of the most exquisite expressions of love that Mozart ever gave a singer. And finally, when Ilia proves that love by offering herself to be sacrificed, she becomes a woman, noble in her intentions and deeply touching. It hardly seems surprising that Dorothea Wendling, according to the composer, declared herself "arcicontentissima" (most extremely contented) with the role.

Elettra, unlike Ilia, is an extraordinarily forward-looking role, given the lacerating rage and jealousy; the expression of those feelings through virtuosic, wide-ranging vocalism on a large scale unimaginable before; and the movement of the vocal line itself, especially in the "outer" arias. The Residenztheater audience must have been collectively stunned by the amazingly "modern" sound of "Tutte nel cor vi sento" (Act One): Think of those immense leaps‹what a perfect aural depiction of a heart beside itself!‹alternating with passages of an unnerving, desperate breathlessness. But Mozart clearly recognized that, if this crazed harpy was to be somehow humanized, another sort of expressive moment was essential. He provided just that with the second-act "Idol mio," an aria of heavenly delicacy, in which one hears a softer Elettra, longing for Idamante's love. Equally memorable are her soaring phrases, placed between the initial voicing and the repeat of "Placido è il mar." This seaside chorus, already superb in its aptly lulling gentleness, is doubly affecting thanks to Elettra's lines, intoxicating in their beauty of line. Clearly the role, although heftier vocally than Ilia, requires a voice able to provide warmth, not just high-powered brilliance.

Another character has yet to be mentioned: the chorus, in this case the people of Crete. They are present to comment on and respond to events, while also throwing the emotions of the principals into the boldest possible relief. The music itself demands everything from the chorus, in terms of dramatic intensity and colors of tone, by turns ravishing and white-hot.

Among Mozart's operas, Idomeneo stands alone, in that one can hardly compare it with what precedes or follows. To call it unequal to the glories of a Figaro or a Don Giovanni is to miss the point totally. Unlike those works, this is an opera about matters of life and death, in which eloquence is consistently the keynote. With that quality pervading music of unsurpassable conviction, a special evening in the theater is assured.

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