There’s nothing quite like a proper mythological struggle between the capricious will of the gods and the stubborn hubris of man to make you truly grateful for the fact that unless current maneuvers on the world’s political stage have in fact ushered in the apocalypse by the time this review is published, the most trying battle you have to fight on a regular basis is with Becky in Accounting who keeps stealing your yoghurt out of the office fridge.
The Met’s Idomeneo —Mozart’s early opera about a king who strikes a terrible bargain with Neptune in order to save his own life— provides this kind of perspective in spades, with its grand staging, its virtuoso performers, and the powerful sounds emanating from the orchestra pit. This recording also serves as a fitting homage to maestro James Levine, who conducted the première of this very production at the Met in 1982. Levine returns for this new run, bent with age but still fiery, and receives loud applause before so much as a note has sounded. Fans of the conducter will enjoy the short film shown in the second interval that affords the audience a look at Levine’s teaching style and contagious enthusiasm in the rehearsal room.
This filmed version, screened in HD, transports the audience to a night at the opera in New York thanks in large part to the stellar camera direction, which manages to catch all the important details during the overture and doesn’t miss a single cue while the performers strut their stuff. Long, lingering shots of the house before the action starts also add greatly to the magic. Audience members shuffling to their seats; twenty-somethings taking selfies in the stalls; patrons in evening wear having serious discussions behind their programmes —all is recorded to be enjoyed by those of us who don’t mind indulging in people-watching.
As far as the actual performance is concerned, it would be fair to call it a healthy success. The young Nadine Sierra (in the role of Ilia) possesses the kind of clear, strong, supple voice one can’t help but fall in love with. Her clarity, warmth, and tonal consistency in ‘Se il padre perdei’ brought the house down. Matthew Polenzani (as the titular character) sings with great sensitivity, and clearly enjoys a perfect command of the music. His diction is also something every performer should aspire to. In ‘Fuor del mar’, he handles the powerful build-up with its ascending runs expertly, and uses it to express his character’s torment.
Alice Coote, in the breeches role of Idamante, may cause the faint at heart to experience some motion sickness, as she can’t seem to stop rocking from side to side at any point during the first act. Her vocal delivery is also rather breathy in places at first. This is mercifully corrected towards the end of Act 1, as Coote finds a way to integrate the more breathy sound in her dramatic delivery. By the time Idamante and Ilia sing ‘Principessa, a tuoi sguardi’, Coote and Sierra’s voices blend perfectly, with no trace of the former’s initial apparent discomfort. In fact, Coote is in fine form throughout the final two acts.
The stage belongs to South African-born Elza van den Heever, who’s clearly having the time of her life swooping around like a menacing force of nature as the jealous Elettra. Her vast black dress, in which one could do nothing but swoop menacingly, adds to the effect. Thanks to Van den Heever’s strong acting ability, Elettra’s evil intent cannot be masked by the singer’s pure voice with its bell-like vibrato. In ‘Estinto e Idomeneo’, the soprano uses dynamics to great effect to highlight her character’s infamous capriciousness. She relishes the role of the unbalanced, absolutely terrifying Elettra, and her rendition (with chorus) of ‘Placido e il mar andiamo’ must certainly be the highlight of the evening.
This brings us to the chorus, who manage to steal the show on more than one occasion. From ‘Nettuno s’onori’, for which the soprano and alto soloists deserve special mention, to ‘O voto tremendo’, with its perfectly balanced dynamics, the chorus never disappoints. The group also displays a masterfully subtle approach to their acting throughout the production —something that definitely can’t always be said when one accidentally takes too close a look at Crowd Member Number 17 in the background of a dramatic scene.
Keep in mind that this is a long screening (with two intervals and a pre-show section containing interviews, previews, and more), so it might not be suitable for those who like their entertainment to come in episode-length chunks. If you’re willing to brave all three acts of this serious opera written by that decidedly un-serious young man from Salzburg at the tender age of 24, however, you’ll be richly rewarded with the opportunity to witness some truly remarkable performances.
Idomeneo, part of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront from 29 April to 10 May. Book your tickets at www.sterkinekor.co.za.