The Lyric Opera’s Idomeneo was worth waiting for. The production’s opening night was postponed for a week due to the musician’s strike that ended Sunday. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera seria, or serious opera, “Idomeneo”, was composed by the wunderkind at the age of 25 and first performed in Munich, Germany in 1781. Esteemed conductor Sir Andrew Davis’s career has included conducting of all of Mozart’s operas but one, Idomeneo. The Lyric’s Idomeneo will be his conducting debut of this masterpiece, one long awaited by the audience if the thunderous applause he received was any indication.
Like many mythological tales, the story is not a particularly happy one, but Mozart’s score is neither heavy-handed or ominous. Mozart leaves it to the voices of the performers to provide the sadness and pain of Idomeneo, the King of Crete, as he speaks truth to power in defying Neptune. The opera begins when we meet Ilia, daughter of the King of Troy, Priam, beautifully played by Chicago’s own Janai Brugger. Saved from a shipwreck by Prince Idamante, son of Idomeneo, she is now his captive. She knows her loyalty should remain with Troy, but she cannot help herself and falls in love with Idamante. Nevertheless, when he declares his love for her she reminds him that his loyalty should be with Crete. Brugger is wonderfully paired with her partner on stage, American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, in her Lyric debut as Idamante, Prince of Crete. Brower owns this complex role and handles its complexities with grace and strength. She interprets the role of the Prince with a subtle and convincing vocal and physical performance.
All good dramas include a love triangle and we find it here between star-crossed lovers Idamante and Ilia and the other woman, Elettra, daughter of King Agamemnon of Argos. Consumed with jealousy, Elettra, elegantly performed by Ryan Opera Center alumnus Erin Wall, warns Idamante that freeing enemy prisoners is wrong, particularly granting the freedom of her adversary, Ilia.
Trojan war hero and King of Crete, Idomeneo, is feared drowned but found alive, saved by promising Neptune that he will kill the first person he sees on land as a sacrifice. Unfortunately, the first person Idomeneo sees is his son, grown older by the passage of time and vicissitudes of war. A particularly moving performance in the role of Idomeneo was delivered by tenor Matthew Polenzani, an Evanston native and Ryan Opera Center alumnus. With his beautiful, mellow voice he portrayed Idomeneo with emotion, arguing against the unreasonable demands of the gods. His portrayal is that of a father desperate to keep his son safe, frustrated in his inability to tell him the truth, but strong enough to send him away for his own good. Joining Polenzani is a fellow Mozartian tenor David Portillo, a Ryan Opera Center Alumnus, as Arbace, Idomeneo’ s loyal but honest friend. Seeing his friend’s pain and unhappiness Arbace insists that his friend let him help shoulder the grief and fear. Idomeneo and his Arbace sing an eloquent debate between the guilt and fear of the father and the advice and support offered by his good friend.
The backdrop of the ancient carved bas relief of Neptune with black holes for eyes and a yawning abyss for a mouth comes back into focus whenever we need reminding of the power of the sea god. While the scenery changes very little from act to act, the image of an angry Neptune fading in and out of our sight reminds us that he is ever present. The state set and the costuming do not attempt to create the place, rather the huge rusticated columns and the etchings of Cretan ruins are an artist’s view of the ancient world, setting the stage for a telling of the tale with music. Everything is colored in beautifully faded sepia tones with the exception of the gilded costumes of the truly royal, Idomeneo, Idamante, Elettra, and Arbace.
In spite of the length of the performance, it moved along surprisingly quickly. The strains of the harpsichord that run through this Mozart masterpiece reminded us of the time and place that gave birth to this masterpiece. The music is not loud or dramatic, but Polenzani’s Idomeneo as he tries to save both his son and his people gave this reviewer chills.
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All photos courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago