Stage Door Review

Idomeneo

Monday, April 8, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Marshall Pynkoski  

Opera Atelier, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto

April 4-13, 2019

“Con danze e con suoni

Convien festeggiar” (Coro, Act 1)

Opera Atelier had a great success with Mozart’s Idomeneo when it presented the opera’s first period staging in North America in 2008. The remounted and refreshed production now playing also deserves every success. The gorgeous singing of the top-notch principals, the ebullient playing of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis, the lively dances choreographed by Jennette Lajeunnesse Zingg all combine to make Mozart’s 1781 opera seria a thrilling production.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Idomeneo concerns one of the many homecoming stories about the Greeks who fought in the ten-year-long Trojan War. Most of the warriors’ lives end badly. Odysseus is blown off course and wanders for ten years before arriving home. Agamemnon is slain by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. And Idomeneus is caught in a storm and makes a hasty vow he soon regrets.

Idomeneus (Idomeneo in the opera) prays to the god Poseidon (Nettuno in the opera) to calm the storm. To grant Idomeneus’ request Poseidon demands that Idomeneus kill the first living thing he sets his eyes on. As is the way in these stories, the first living thing he sees is Idamante, his own son. 

In Giambattista Varesco’s libretto this leads to multiple complexities. Idamante does not understand why his father shuns him after having been away so long. Idomeneo sees that killing his son will affect others. Idamante is already in love with the captive Trojan princess Ilia while Elletra, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is filled with unrequited love for Idamante. Idomeneo meanwhile does nothing hoping that his vow will be forgotten. When a giant sea monster ravages the (fictional) port city of Sidon, Idomeneo offers himself as a sacrifice but is rejected. This causes the High Priest to ask Idomeneo who it is who must be sacrificed to placate the god.

In traditional productions of the opera, Nettuno never appears. We hear him only in Act 3 when he speaks via an oracle. Director Marshall Pynkoski gives the god a much larger role. He has bass Douglas Williams, muscular and bare-chested, act as Nettuno guiding the weather when the storm music makes its first appearance in the overture. He is again physically present commanding the winds and waves with his trident during the exciting storm scene of Act 3. Instead of our merely hearing Nettuno as a voice, Pynkoski has Williams enter the stage and grasp Idamante in one hand and Idomeneo in the other as he delivers his final pronouncement.

For this production Pynkoski has assembled an especially starry cast. Colin Ainsworth, long an OA favourite, powerfully brings out the pain that the guilt-stricken Idomeneo suffers. Ainsworth’s voice, once so pure and high, has noticeably darkened over the years but has gained more depth of colour and expression. In this his first Idomeneo, he is best in the arias of delight such as “Vedrommi intorno” and “Torna la pace”, but he cannot yet quite manage the coloratura runs of the vocal showcase “Fuor del mar”.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay, also an OA favourite, has always sung well and and with feeling. She was very affecting as the Statue in Rameau’s Pygmalion just last November, but somehow between then and now her voice seems suddenly to have matured from merely being lovely to now sounding absolutely gorgeous. Her technique and control of dynamics are impeccable making each one of her arias from “Padre, germani, addio” to “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” shine like a jewel.

Wallis Giunta, who has gone on to a successful career in Europe, wields a mezzo-soprano that has also matured. Her high, clear, agile voice has gained in body and expressivity. As with Lindsay, each of her arias is impressive, though perhaps the passionate “No, la morte io non pavento” is the most outstanding for its combination of beauty and power. In terms of acting she has adjusted her body language and demeanour to play the trousers role of Idamante, first written for a castrato, most convincingly, 

As in 2008 most of the publicity surrounding Idomeneo focussed on the internationally award-winning soprano Measha Brueggergosman. In 2008 she made both her Opera Atelier debut and her Mozart opera debut with the role of Elettra. Now in 2019 she has returned to OA to reprise the role. Her voice has always sounded like liquid amber. Now the passage of time has added an attractive smokiness and even more richness to her tone. As with Lindsay and Giunta, she brings off each of her arias perfectly, this time her Elettra appearing more inward-looking than she portrayed the role in 2008. As a result, her account of Elettra’s mad-scene “D'Oreste, d'Ajace ho in seno i tormenti” did not seem so much of an dazzling showpiece as a deeply considered portrait of a mind frightened as reality slips from its grip.

As Nettuno, Douglas Williams moves so powerfully and gracefully on stage that those who do not know him might think he was a dancer. Thus it comes as even more of surprise at the very end when finally he sings and unleashes the force of his large bass voice.

This year OA has had to abandon its usual venue of the Elgin Theatre, where it has performed regularly since 1999. Idomeneo is staged in the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Canon Theatre and before that the Pantages Theatre) which has 700 more seats than the Elgin. This increase in seats, however, does not appear to affect the acoustics. What does affect them is the narrowness of the pit. It is only three musicians deep which means the 38-member orchestra stretches from the loge on one side to the loge on the other so that the harpsichordist on house right is 24 seats and two aisles away from the bass drum player inside the loge house left.

This has both a negative and a positive effect. On the minus side, the orchestral sound is very dry and analytical and lacks the bloom the more thickly clustered orchestra had at the Elgin. On the plus side, having such a narrow width of players to traverse, the singers’ voices strike the ear even more clearly than in the Elgin. On the whole, I prefer the greater warmth of the sound at the Elgin.

I have always enjoyed the stylized acting that Marshall Pynkoski has encouraged in his performers. It helps to keep the singers’ movements more closely related to those of the dancers’. Pynkoski had been moving toward a more realistic mode of acting, but in Idomeneo he reverts to the company’s previous mode of stylization. What appears odd is that the range of stylized gestures seems to have decreased and the three most distraught characters – Idomeneo, Idamante and Elletra – all express their distress with exactly the same gestures. One notices that they all rather too often put palms to temples to indicate their disturbed state of mind. Besides that, Pynkoski rather too frequently has them rush from centre stage to hug the proscenium and back or throw themselves to the floor to indicate high emotion. This tends to de-individualize the characters whose sources of distress are all quite different and are all quite differently expressed in the music.

As usual, dance is a major pleasure in an OA production and here all the ballet music, usually excised, is included such as the ballo for the celebrations at the finale. Working within the codes of baroque and neoclassical dance, with strategic additions from 19th-century ballet, Jeannette Lajeunnesse Zingg has created a continually inventive stream of dance and choreographed movement for the Atelier Ballet throughout the opera to accompany the choral sections, to illustrate instrumental sections such as the storm and to embody the dance sequences proper. Particularly notable are the spectacular solo turns of Dominic Who during the finale.

Despite various quibbles, Opera Atelier’s Idomeneo will be the most exciting, imaginatively directed and choreographed production of Mozart’s first great opera you ever are likely to see. Despite the greater width of the new venue, the music-making is still exemplary and the drier acoustics only emphasize the extraordinary precision of the orchestra’s playing and the performers’ singing. As always, Opera Atelier shows that it is through clarity of storytelling that opera connects most strongly with its audience.                

Christopher Hoile

Note: This is version of a the review that will appear later this year in Opera News.

Photos: (from top) Measha Brueggergosman as Elletra, Wallis Giunta as Idamante, Meghan Lindsay as Ilia, Colin Ainsworth as Idomeneo and conductor David Fallis; Measha Brueggergosman as Elletra; Meghan Lindsay as Ilia, Colin Ainsworth as Idomeneo, Wallis Giunta as Idamante and dancers Dominic Who and Julia Sedwick. © 2019 Bruce Zinger.

For tickets, visit www.operaatelier.com.