War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove)
October 26, 2008
Review by Emily Hilligoss, Photos by Terrence McCarthy
Better Than: Being sacrificed to Neptune by your bumbling father.
Run through a blender plot lines from about 50 classical myths, costumes from at least three different eras, a goodly amount of Freudian angst, a sparkling score, and one humdinger of a deus ex machina, and what results would approximate S.F. Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo. It would be uncharitable to characterize Idomeneo as merely a Mozart B-side — though the relentlessly ersatz plot makes for more than a few “huh?” moments, the affair has a youthful verve that endures for the entire two hours and 40 minutes. This vibe is quite fitting, given that Mozart was not yet 25 when he finished the work in 1781.
The action is set on the island of Crete against the backdrop of the Trojan war. Ilia (soprano Genia Kühmeier), a captured Trojan princess replete with corset and hoop skirts, is despairing the fact that she is falling in love with Idamante, prince of Crete and son of the absent king Idomeneo. At Sunday’s matinee, the regular Idamante (British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, pictured below) was nursing a back injury, so the role was capably executed by Daniela Mack, who brought a fresh-faced earnestness to the proceedings, and seemed to gain in confidence as the show went on.
Idamante shares Ilia’s affections, much to the chagrin of Elettra (a spunky Iano Tamar), the most incongruous yet also the most engaging character in the production, seemingly imported wholesale from the Orestes myth. Preening about in bad-girl red and black, wearing a huge gilt crown the way some women wear “Princess” across the rear of their hot pants, Elettra provides a welcome dose of comic relief amid the tortured Idamante/Ilia proceedings, calling to mind the opera seria/opera buffa interplay of Mozart’s later Don Giovanni.
This perfectly good love triangle is disrupted by the return of dear old dad from Troy. Shipwrecked off Crete, Idomeneo (Kurt Streit) is so overcome with gratitude upon reaching land that he does what any jubilant castaway would do — promises to sacrifice to the sea god Neptune the first human he sees. This turns out to be Idamante. Whoops! The distraught Idomeneo drags his feet for as long as possible, but massive displays of heavenly displeasure (complete with strobe lights) and the arrival of a Godzilla-meets-Nessie sea monster force the king’s hand. Rather than see her beloved die, the ever-melodramatic Ilia volunteers to take his place . . . which would solve what, exactly? (Cue happydance from Elettra.)
But none other than the “Voice of the Oracle” declares enough already, people, just let the son replace the father as ruler (with Ilia as queen) and it’s all good by Neptune. (Cue comical cries of despair from Elettra, who does a bit of suicidal posturing and then exits as abruptly as she was written in.) In the 1712 original version of this opera, human blood is indeed shed, but it was perhaps a nod to the sensibilities of Mozart’s later 18th century that something like common sense (and the requisite royal wedding) finally prevails here. Positing the nebulous “Voice of the Oracle” as the voice of Enlightenment reason is among the greater of the plot’s absurdities, but what is the genre of opera itself if not just a little kooky?
Personal Bias: Aced Italian; dropped out of choir.
Random Detail: Opera fans? Old. At least the ones who can afford the good seats without having to write a review.
By the way: Final performance is October 31. In Italian, with English supertitles.