IDOMENEO a CMajor/Unitel release of a live video-recording of the Wiener Staatsoper 2019 production, directed by Kasper Holten, designed by Mia Stensgaard, Anja Vang Kragh, and Jesper Kongshug.  The orchestra and chorus of the Vienna State Opera are led by Tomáš Netopil.

The cast:

Idomeneo – Bernard Richter, tenor

Idamante – Rachel Frenkel, mezzo-soprano

Elettra – Irina Lungu, soprano

Ilia – Valentina Nafornita, soprano


Idomeneo began to change the course of the operatic journey Mozart had begun with his earlier Italian-language operas. Mozart was still finding his sea legs as an opera composer, and although nothing quite like it had ever been composed before either by him or by anyone else, it would still take him a few years before Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte would create the great operatic masterpieces. Both the composition, the rehearsals, and the premiere of Idomeneo were plagued by battles with the lead tenor and the librettist, but Mozart forged ahead into a new artistic beginning.

In Idomeneo, Mozart and his librettist, Giambattista Varesco focus on the fallibility of gods and their representatives on earth: kings and princesses morally imperfect, self-questioning, filled with doubts, the gods capricious, intractable, and vengeful. The opera allegorically depicts the collapse of the old-world order and the hope for the birth of a better system, in so doing signaling the end of the old Opera Seria with its improbable plots about perfect gods versus perfect men.

The year was 1780 and the ground beneath the feet of Europeans already trembled with the rumble of the American and the French Revolutions, still then a few years away. Even when saddled with a creaky libretto by the poet-priest Varesco, much of the music for Idomeneo depicts human dilemma, torment, and heartbreak with an immediacy never heard before.

Composers before Mozart had never attempted to break out of the rigid mold of aria-recitative-aria developed by Scarlatti, Vivaldi, and Handel. This format forced the action to move forward mainly in the recitatives, while the arias remained vehicles for the characters to think out-loud, often not addressing each other, or simply show-stopping star turns.

Ensembles were hardly ever heard in Opera before Mozart, based as they were on the Greek tragedies that had inspired the works of the composers of the Camerata, in which the conflict between protagonist and antagonist was negotiated between two and never more than two characters – good dialectics and eloquent rhetoric, but poor drama. Mozart did not quite shed all this musical bad hair in Idomeneo: the recitatives go on and on ad infinitum and then most of the arias are musically interesting though dramatically inert soliloquies. On the plus side he crafted at least one great ensemble: Andrò ramingo e solo.

Idomeneo, King of Crete returns to his homeland after barely escaping with his life a sea storm that sank his ship and drowned most of his crew. At the tempest’s worst moment, the Cretan king made a vow to Neptune, king of the sea, that if his life was spared he would kill the first human being he would lay eyes on. That vow leads to the events that ultimately bring about the end of his reign and the ascendancy of his son Idamante to the throne of Crete.

For the spectator who does not know the literary and mythological background to this opera: the Trojan war, the tragic family history of Electra with its Mycenean chain of revenge killings, the hierarchy of the Greek gods, and so forth, much of the plot of the opera becomes incomprehensible, and that is when a good stage director comes to the rescue, at the service of both the work and of the opera-goer who buys the ticket that goes to pay for a portion of his salary and that of the other artists. The production’s director – Kasper Holten – seems to be oblivious of this fact of life in the theatre: his staging a catch-all of every theatrical cliché one has ever endured and damned be the unsuspecting public

Ilia makes her entrance – or, I should say: her descent – suspended in an aerialist harness, seemingly fully equipped to make her Cirque de Soleil debut. Throughout the interminably long 160 minutes/two DVD production, mysteriously shaded supernumeraries hover about while the hapless principals struggle to sing their arias. Idomeneo – no explanation given that one could find – sports a nasty scar on his face. A tired old chess game lay out is there, with the principals picking up the pieces and aimlessly moving them around. Is there a symbol in there? One mammoth piece of scenery hangs above the stage, again for no apparent reason. At one point the chorus appears holding music, causing one to ask if this is an opera or an oratorio. Some of the crucially important moments – the Idomeneo-Idamante recognition scene, for one fall flat.

The production design is confusing: Mia Stensgaard’s sets leave one wondering as to time and place, as do Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes. Jesper Kongshug’s lighting is merely serviceable.

The cast is – to be frank – second tier. Bernard Richter, the Idomeneo, is essentially a light lyric tenor who might possibly make his mark as a Ferrando or a Don Ottavio. As Idomeneo, he is simply not equipped to handle the big moments which abound in the score. His Fuor del mar lacks bravura and, surprisingly for such a light voice, agility.

Two of the ladies in the cast fare no better. Valentina Nafornita’s dark vocal production keeps her from sounding silvery and young like the young Trojan princess Ilia should. Irina Lungo as Elettra sings flat in the middle voice and her acting smacks of silent movies histrionics. Rachel Frenkel is, on the other hand, a good Idamante, singing well and acting with sincerity. The orchestra and chorus of the Vienna State Opera are capably led by Tomáš Netopil.

At the end of our listening section, we paused to ask ourselves if this is the best the Vienna State Opera has to offer.

Rafael de Acha (c) 2022

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