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Mozart's Idomeneo

  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano
  • Krisztina Szabo, mezzo-soprano
  • Paul Groves, tenor
  • Harry Bicket, conductor
  • At the Four Seasons Centre
  • In Toronto on Sunday

Mozart was 25 in 1781 when he composed his 13th opera, Idomeneo, King of Crete, a work like no other, either of Mozart's or of anyone else's. It had only three performances in its first production, prepared and conducted by Mozart himself in Munich at the Residenztheater. The sheer originality of what he had written left him conflicted, and for the rest of his short life, he continued to fuss with it, writing fresh bits, rewriting others, dropping still others, never himself fully staging it again.

It has not really entered the repertoire in a big way to this day, but the superior fascinations of its music keep it disturbingly in mind as it grafts intricate and exquisite excesses of French and Italian style onto the plain, intensely human yet curiously hieratic and formal simplicities of the epoch-making operas of Gluck.

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Posterity has followed Mozart in continuing to fuss about Idomeneo. No less a pragmatist than Richard Strauss lovingly rearranged it to suit himself in 1931. But only in the latter half of the 20th century did the rare magnificence of its choruses, the singular harmonic richness and eloquence of its orchestra, the beauty of its vocal ensembles and the poignancy of its arias finally persuade scholars and connoisseurs, and gradually the public, that Idomeneo is an uneasy but distinct masterpiece.

Strengths outnumber weaknesses in this COC production, which employs the New Mozart Edition's Idomeneo edited by Daniel Heartz.

The set is a single, strikingly designed seaside temple to Neptune by Germany's Siegfried Mayer, transformed and dramatized by scrim curtains and moveable panels, with magnificent lighting by France's François de Carpentries, who is also, with more variable success, the stage director. Among de Carpentries's few shortcomings is his decision to afford us no glimpse of the horrifying sea monster at the end of Act 2. Belgian designer Karine Van Hercke found her costumes somewhere between ancient Greek and present-day no-name urban - a mixed blessing, but they light well.

Sandra Horst's COC chorus is absolutely stunning, albeit with much Mozart choral writing to be stunning about - most notably the great chorus in which the Cretans express their profound horror and dismay that King Idomeneo should have to slay his own son, Idamante, to appease a cruel and furious Neptune. This is music which in darkness and power reaches ahead to Verdi in the next century.

The principal singers are, without any serious exception, outstanding, with virile American tenor Paul Groves's superb Idomeneo, delectable Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian's elegant Ilia and the excellent Irish-Canadian tenor Michael Colvin's blind Arbace - Idomeneo's confidant - heading the list. The brilliant American soprano Tamara Wilson's poisonous Elettra and the strong Hungarian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo's convincing Idamante are not far behind. Up and coming Canadian tenor Adam Luther is an imposing High Priest of Neptune and South African-Canadian baritone Neil Craighead is suitably eerie as the oracular voice of Neptune, rising anonymously from the back of the chorus.

English conductor Harry Bicket penetrates the by no means simple workings of Mozart's extraordinary orchestral score - which has the omnipresent aspect, even more than the chorus, of a major, opinionated Machiavellian character in the piece.

Over all, the production is a bit static and heavy in the continuity of the long, unbroken first two acts. But musically and dramatically, dawn breaks in the third, with its gorgeous love duet for Idamante and Ilia and the fabulous quartet that ensues when Idomeneo and Elettra find them. Buoyed by such music, I think you'll conclude that Idomeneo is unlike other Mozart or any other opera, and richly rewards a visit.

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Idomeneo runs until May 29, with a special performance May 19 by the young singers of the COC's Ensemble Studio.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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