- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

Frothy and fun. That's what people tend to think about when buying tickets for a Mozart opera. From "The Marriage of Figaro" to "The Magic Flute," Mozart's music always seems to display a light, deft, entertaining touch when it comes to dramatic comedy. And even his more serious "Don Giovanni" has its amusing moments. But this past Saturday, Washington Opera audiences caught a glimpse of an entirely different, more solemn Mozart as the company mounted its first-ever production of the composer's relatively unknown "Idomeneo" at the Kennedy Center's Opera House. (The opera itself was not performed in the United States until 1947.)

A throwback in many ways to the relatively static operas of Handel that involved much posturing and little real action, "Idomeneo" marks the young Mozart's most notable attempt at writing in the old "opera seria" style before evolving his own. It is not a scintillating evening of musical theater and not much happens. But the orchestra and soloists, including artistic director Placido Domingo in the title role, make this production succeed by crafting it into a moving and profoundly musical evening. In fact, the appearance of maestro Domingo in the title role increases the stature of this work considerably and undoubtedly will draw some people to buy tickets who normally would not chance an opera they do not know.

"Idomeneo" is set on the island of Crete directly after the Trojan War. Like Odysseus, Idomeneo, King of Crete, has lost nearly his entire fleet of warriors on the return voyage. To spare the rest as well as himself, he promises Neptune that he'll sacrifice to the god the first human he sees upon the safe return of his battered ship and crew. Unfortunately, the designated victim turns out to be the king's son, Idamante. Further complicating matters, Idamante has fallen in love with the captive Trojan princess Ilia, infuriating the visiting princess Electra (Elettra in this opera), which is a really bad idea. Idomeneo understandably waffles on his vow, infuriating Neptune and things go downhill from here.

As in authentic ancient Greek drama, most of the really fun action in "Idomeneo" (shipwrecks, cyclonic storms, and a violent battle with a nasty sea serpent) happens offstage, so most of the characters end up hanging around the palace bemoaning their fates. Ah, but this is where the magic of Mozart comes in. Counter to the composer's usual happy face, the music here is deep and thoughtful, loaded with minor key passages leavened with surprising, significant modulations to and from diminished chords. The work's tone is autumnal and elegiac, in many ways foreshadowing Mozart's greatest minor-key masterpiece, his brilliant and tragic 40th Symphony.

The entire Washington Opera company negotiated this serious work with understated brilliance. The soloists and chorus couldn't have been better, and the company's orchestra, under the measured baton of Claire Gibault, played with clarity and a surprisingly romantic passion. It was a performance of Mozart the likes of which we are used to receiving only from the company's respected music director, Heinz Fricke.

Maestro Domingo is an acknowledged, legendary superstar in the opera firmament. Thus, the role of Idomeneo is unusual for him, being only one among several vocal equals in the opera, with each of the principals getting nearly the same amount of time in the solo spotlight. Vocally, Idomeneo spends quite a bit of time in the baritone range for a tenor part, but Mr. Domingo handles it naturally. As a result, his voice serves to provide an unaccustomed ballast for the ensembles which draw primarily on the female voice. It is an interesting shift for him in late-career and a thoughtful one. It is a genuine pleasure to see him graciously add a palpable gravitas to his cast of younger singers, all of whom rise to the challenge.

What a pleasure to see once again Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, in the role of Ilia. Miss Netrebko adds beauty, delicacy, and grace to every role she sings, and Ilia is no exception. You can listen to her creamy, lyric soprano for hours upon hours without any sense of fatigue. She is at once one of the most accomplished and one of the most enjoyable singers of her generation.

In the trouser role of Ilia's ardent lover, the noble Idamante, mezzo-soprano Jossie Perez displayed a knife-clean voice unusual in this range. In addition to her excellent diction, this proved most advantageous in cutting through Mozart's surprisingly deep, thick orchestral textures in an opera where a more traditional mezzo might have gotten buried. As Idomeneo's counselor, Arbace, tenor Corey Evan Rotz, a frequent performer with the company, was quietly effective in his role, adding balance to the sometimes frenetic emotions of the evening.

Perhaps the most amusing turn of the evening was soprano Cynthia Lawrence's over-the-top interpretation of the belligerent Elettra. Shakespeare leavened even his gravest tragedies with an occasional comic touch. Given his puckish character, there's some evidence that Mozart was doing likewise with the part of Elettra in this opera. In any event, Miss Lawrence chose to make the most of what is already there. Flouncing about like a true diva, Miss Lawrence and her hard-edged, agile voice leavened an otherwise solemn evening with airy puffs of comic emotion. Her fierce Act III blast at the gods and the royals ended in a hilariously flaming coloratura collapse, bringing down the house.

Elsewhere, hat tips to the company's imported Metropolitan Opera set designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle an ancient temple deeply pitted by salt-spray and haunted by a huge ghost of Neptune and to the Washington Opera Chorus which turned in a crisp, well-calibrated performance.

Slightly less successful, however, were Mr. Ponelle's eccentric costumes, each of which seemed to combine aspects of ancient Greece, medieval Europe, and Shakespearean England into a pretty but odd mishmash. Miss Lawrence's costume, a billowy dress extended a yard in either direction by an outsized Elizabethan farthingale, was a bit much. When servants draped her with a white cloak, she looked like a giant tea cozy.


****

WHO: The Washington Opera

WHAT: Mozart's "Idomeneo"

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Nov. 11 and 23 at 7 p.m.; Nov. 14, 20, and 23 at 7:30 p.m.; and Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $41-$285

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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