It's not often you get to hear two Mozart operas "live" in a single weekend. When one of them is the seldom performed opera seria Idomeneo, and the Saint Paul Chanber Orchestra happens to be performing Mozart's 41st symphony on the same weekend, you've got a genuine, if fortuitous, Mozart festival on your hands.
Reading Alfred Einstein's A Short History of Music during my college days, I was surprised that he devoted so much of the book to opera. Over the years I've warmed to the genre. Well, opera isn't a genre, better to call it a universe. Monteverdi's operas don't sound much like Mozart's, and Wagner's don't much resemble those of his close contemporary Verdi, much less the operas of Britten or Berg.
I cut my teeth on Don Giovanni, Otello, Carmen, and a few other classics. Then bel canto. Puccini and the verists came later, and opera seria last of all. Nowadays I thoroughly enjoy those early, static works based on mythological themes, and I seek out opportunities to watch not only Handel's Italian operas and the few Gluck works that are still being performed, but whatever obscure opera from that era happens to be in town. Our own local troupe, Consortium Carrissimi, recently did Il Tirinto, an obscure opera by Bernardo Pasquini. It was a knock-out.
Mozart's Idomeneo is one of the last of that breed, and historians tell us that he broke the mold in the process of composing it, removing repetitive sections and shortening arias to heighten the dramatic effect. The result is a robust piece of musical theater, sui generis.
Yet the plot is nothing special. Indomedeo, returning to Crete from the Trojan War, averts a storm at sea by vowing to sacrifice the first person he sees after landing safely to the sea god Neptune. Who should he meet up with on the beach but his son, Idamante. Idamante already has trouble on his hands—he's fallen in love with Ilia, one of the captives brought home to Crete from Troy, to the dismay of Electra, who's been doting on him for quite a while. While Idomedeo dithers, reluctant to specify whom he's going to have to sacrifice, a plague scours the island.
These awkward situations produce a succession of arias, noble and plaintive by turns, which is what we came to hear. Though the soloists were students, they were advanced vocal students, and they sounded fine to me. As did the orchestra. The choral interludes offered a welcome change of pace. I can hardly think of a better way to spend three hours.
I saw a woman across the aisle with a legal pad in her lap, and I couldn't resist asking her what she was up to. Critiquing the performance? Turns out it was Lara Bolton, a voice coach associated with the production (and also the Minnesota Opera, Source Song Festival, etc.).
"Which cast member are you related to?" she asked me.
"Nobody," I replied. "We just came to see the performance."
She wasn't shocked, but she was surprised. "Really? I wish more people would come out for these events."
The audience was indeed sparse. And the event had been featured in the Star-Tribune!
The Marriage of Figaro was a different story. Though the tickets were more expensive by a power of ten, the place was packed. Of course, the opera is one of the most popular in the repertoire. Unlike the slightly staid and formal Idomeneo, Figaro is full of hijinks, intrigue, exuberance, and mistaken identities, often silly, occasionally tender or sinister, but also crossing over the line freely into farce.
To my mind, everything in this production worked, from the sets and staging to the individual characterizations and the on-stage logistics. There is so much going on that the challenge lies in preserving the humanity and good sense of the characters. The Count Almaviva that we saw was a conniving rake—there's no escaping that side of his character—but his lecherous instincts were less vicious than in some productions. By the same token, Cherubino's adolescent libidinousness was not so jazzed up as it sometimes is, and this, too, is a good thing. He reminded us that love is a good and natural and almost innocent thing, whatever dishonorable and devious paths it might eventually take.
In contrast, the recent production of Figaro at the Met was hypercharged to the point of feverish excess, and the revolving stage only added to the dismal effect. I saw it twice—once a simulcast at a cineplex in Brooklin Center and later on public television; both times I left at intermission. It was as if everyone had grown bored with the music, or forgotten what it was about.
The Minnesota Opera's production had just the right tone, The revolving facades worked. The lighting of the candles worked. The countesses arias were sublime, and the trios and quartets, during which every character is saying something different, were electrifying. The only criticism I would have is that the supertitles were too brief and rudimentary to give a nuanced sense of what was being said.
I found the machinations of the last act incomprehensible, and quit trying to figure out who was trying to seduce or impersonate whom in the shadows of the Count's garden. All's well that ends well. Time to settle back and enjoy the music.
I hope I'm not giving away too much of the plot.