While Idomeneo and Idamante had to work on their father-son relationship, Nikolaus and Philipp Harnoncourt are doing really well in that department – it is their collaboration that maybe needs some rethinking. Their teamwork has resulted the production of Mozart’s Idomeno first seen in Graz in 2008 and now reprised in the Opernhaus Zürich. Harnoncourt, Sr., claims that the idea of sharing responsibility in this staging is due to the fact that he had never seen any director who really understands that Idomeneo is rather a tragédie lyrique than an opera seria. Therefore, ballet should play a key role in it, especially in what regards showing the supernatural elements of the plot. I could agree with that on paper, but what has been finally shown on stage is only a low-budget production with unimaginative sets of dubious taste, unbelievably ugly costumes and a detailed if clichéd stage direction that reduces Idomeneo to mania, Elettra to coquetry, Ilia to childishness and Idamante to neediness. Then there is the ballet – I am not sure if classical ballet pirouettes are the right idea to portray sea monsters and menacing deities. I found it quite distracting, especially during the staged overture (yes, I know…). The complete ballet music in the end of the opera has been retained and, as much as Heinz Spoerli’s graceful choreography was expertly performed by the Zürcher Ballet, it added absolutely nothing to the understanding of the plot. One could actually take it for the second item on a double bill with the opera until Ilia and Idamante are finally brought in the last minute to justify the whole idea. To make things worse, with the excuse of the original Munich première version, the most exciting aria in the score (D’Oreste, d’Ajacce, of course) did not make it into this evening’s performing edition. The reason why Mozart cut it back then was the interruption of the dramatic flow caused by it. In the Harnoncourts’ staging, Elettra’s surviving recitative was an oasis of excitement in a rather uneventful closing scene… If I had to point out an advantage in the father-son teamwork, this would be the way the conductor’s fanciful playing with tempo found support in the dramatic action.
Compared to Harnoncourt’s Teldec recording with more or less the same orchestra (then under a different name), this evening’s performance is noticeably less coherent in its theatrical intent. Although Harnoncourt’s microscopic attention to details is often revelatory, pressing the break pedal to highlight every little one of them is finally an aim in itself, rather than a means to express anything. Moreover, the orchestral playing left something to be desired in its extremely dry sound, not to mention the occasional instance of poor tuning and lack of rhythmic precision. Although the choral singing was not bad, it lacked the necessary clarity to blend with the period instrument orchestra.
All that said, Harnoncourt masters the art of accentuation and produced some amazing results, for example, in recitativi accompagnati – some chords were so sudden and intense that I almost jumped off my seat at moments! The scene when Idamante first sees his father was worth alone the (high) price of the ticket.
Julia Kleiter is an ideal Mozartian soprano and apart from one blunder during Se il padre perdei*, offered an exemplary account of the role if Ilia. If she ultimately could be somewhat more affecting, I would rather blame the directors’ superficial view of the role, which left her little space to focus. Eva Mei’s bright soprano is a bit light for Elletra. Without her final aria, it is difficult to say anything definitive about her take on this role. As it was, she found the tessitura of Tutte nel cor uncongenial and failed to caress her lines in Idol’ mio, even if she found no difficulty with the high-lying writing. She is a seasoned Mozartian and made some beautiful sounds and used the text knowingly, but the final impression was rather blank. She is not usually considered a magnetic actress, but was was certainly the singer who offered the bast acting in this cast. Marie-Claude Chappuis’s mezzo is similarly light for Idamante, but once she overcame the problems that thwarted her high register during Non ho colpa, this singer would win the audience over with her beauty of tone, elegant phrasing, exquisite pianissimi and engagement.
Saimir Pirgu’s italianate dulcet tenor is on the light side for Idomeneo. He was not entirely comfortable in a part that sits low in his voice and tended to be emphatic in a way that tampers with legato, but produced reasonably effortless divisions in Fuor del mare. He still needs to mature in the role in order to transcend correctness and achieve something really moving. Cristroph Strehl was a strenous Arbace who got to sing one of his arias (Se colà ne’ fati).
* This is the first time I have heard Ilia sing her complete recitative in which she speaks of Hecuba and Priam in a staged production. Harnoncourt recording has the usual shorter version, while, as far as I can immediately remember, Jacobs’s recording for Harmonia Mundi is the only one to feature the longer text.