WASHINGTON, June 15, 2002 – For decades, productions of Washington’s In Series have remained difficult to define, delightfully quirky, occasionally uneven, but almost always intriguing, especially for music lovers who can’t or won’t afford the full-fare extravaganzas staged at the Kennedy Center. That said, the Series’ current production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, which wraps up this weekend at the Atlas, marks what we think is a quantum leap in concept, quality, and imagination.
One of Mozart’s serious operas that’s gained quite a lot of traction over the last decade or three, Idomeneo (1781) is based on the travails of King Idomeneus, one of the key royals frequently mentioned in the Iliad. The King of Crete, Idomeneus, his army, and his navy were part of the massive Greek-led contingent that ultimately overwhelmed the city-state of Troy.
According to myth, Idomeneus ran into the same kind of trouble on his return voyage to Crete as did Odysseus/Ulysses, the ruler of Ithaca—namely, they both got on the wrong side of the sea-god Poseidon. Simpler and less wily than Odysseus, Idomeneus promised Poseidon that he’d sacrifice the first human he spotted onshore if only the wrathful god would spare him, his sailors, and his ship. The good news: Poseidon granted this request. The bad news: the first human Idomeneus spotted on shore was unfortunately his own son, Idamante.
Fragments of myth and history tell us that Idomeneus’ resolution of his dilemma didn’t turn out well. The sacrifice of his son led to his downfall, although the myth takes various routes after this point.
Mozart and his librettist, Giambattista Varesco crafted a rewrite of this story from a French drama, altering the story’s outcome to suit the tender-hearted composer’s desire for a happier and, perhaps, a more thoughtful ending. Idomeneo (Italian for Idomeneus) still loses his job, but ends up as a sort of King Emeritus after placating Poseidon and passing the crown along to Idamante, whom he doesn’t kill after all.
Mozart’s Idomeneo is a lengthy opera offering plenty of challenges for its cast of singers. They not only have to negotiate the composer’s showy ornamentation with aplomb, but they also need a good bit of stamina to get to the final bars of this three-plus hour operatic showcase.
As it often does, the In Series chose to trim its production to a more manageable length by chopping about an hour of recitative and, alas, a few arias. while shuffling the order of a few of the remaining scenes. Translated into English and considerably updated by Charlotte Stoudt, Varesco’s original libretto becomes more intelligible for a modern audience. They’ll appreciate the occasional sly allusions to our current political situation here.
The production’s cast and reduced chorus gets a break on this Idomeneo’s shorter length (which also saves the In Series some money), enabling them to give the opera their all while avoiding total exhaustion. Further money was saved by reducing Mozart’s orchestra to a piano and a few string players (more of which anon.) And some of these savings are, perhaps, channeled into the production’s highly evocative yet minimalist set and surprisingly clever, almost-historical costuming.
The result is a handsome, elegant, quietly showy production that highlights the best of Mozart’s music while affording an easy entrée to this work for both opera newbies and Mozart fans alike. No, the singing is not quite what you’ll get at the Met. But with tickets priced at $38-42—and an amazing $25 for active military and their families—the price is right. And for your ticket, you’ll get a chance to see what may very well be the most polished In Series production we’ve seen to date.
Singing is good to top-notch. As King Idomeneo, Richard Tappen turns in perhaps his most surprising performance to date. He’s occasionally had vocal issues in other In Series performances, but in this one he’s quite strong and resolute throughout, particularly in his final aria. The music does tax his instrument. Yet he was still able to glide through some remarkably tough ornamentation with very little trouble at all.
As Idamante—a part originally written for a castrato but later changed to tenor—Peter Burroughs had a good handle on his complex character, beleaguered on one side by his father’s troubling callousness, and on the other by his love for Ilia, a captive princess of Troy. Although a bit more forcefulness might have been called for in this part, Mr. Burroughs still sang ably and generally well.
Soprano Randa Rouweyha, long one of our favorites, did not disappoint as Princess Ilia. Hers is a lush, well-tempered voice, and she also pays great attention to diction—a must even in an English language production that doesn’t include the extra assist provided by surtitles. Ms. Rouweyha’s acting abilities further enhance the sympathy drawn to her character, making her performance perhaps the most well rounded effort of this ensemble.
As her nemesis—Electra, the exiled princess of Argos—Jennifer Suess is cast in the role of Poseidon’s human counterpart, the nasty, bad girl who’s eager to dispose of or dispatch Ilia so that she can have Idamante for herself. Ms. Suess is powerful and highly effective in her role, bristling with menace in her every appearance.
She does go a bit over the top, however, in her final key moments where she essentially self-destructs, turning into a fortunate (for Idamante, Ilia, and Idomeneo) substitute sacrifice. Whether this is a directorial choice or not, Ms. Suess is clearly straining her voice in these final moments, although from a dramatic point of view, her character’s obvious madness at this point adds a considerable dose of realism to the proceedings.
Joesph Haughton proves a delightful surprise in the small role of Arbace, the close advisor to Idomeneo and his family. His strong, clear, authoritative tenor voice and clean diction left the audience wanting more, and he’ll surely be welcome in additional opera productions that will hopefully remain a part of the In Series’ future programming.
This production’s small chorus was crisp, accurate, and enthusiastic, giving the performance a much bigger look and feel than might have been expected. The effect was enhanced by the appearance of a pair of dancers, Heidi Kershaw and Alvaro Palau, who tastefully underscored the action at several key points without being intrusive. They, the chorus, and the principals were all superbly directed by Tom Mallan who never allowed anything to get in the way of the singing.
And we promised to get back to the music and the musicians who in and of themselves are worthy of mention. Under the direction of Carlos César Rodríguez, who also doubled on the piano and electric harpsichord, the accompanying string quartet performed so expressively and so flawlessly that the entire ensemble—Mr. Rodriguez included—put this production a cut above what it otherwise might have been.
Performing Mozart’s music as if they were channeling the composer himself, Mr. Rodriguez and his string players added an extraordinary level of expressiveness, nuance, and professionalism to the entire production. It was a first rate effort on opening night, and is a large part of what makes this production something very special indeed.
For tickets and information on this weekend’s performances (through June 17), visit the In Series’ ticket office here, or call them at 202-204-7763.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars.)
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