on 11 November 2014
"Più la mano può d'amore, S'è vicin l'amante cor". So says Elettra in scene 4 of Act II. Less poetically known as: "Out of sight, out of mind". She's also just said: "Scaccierà vicino ardore/ Dal tuo sen l'ardor lontano": "Passion close at hand will drive away from your heart more distant fires". A scorching love triangle (or two of them, depending upon interpretation) and passions galore. And a beautiful "anyone should be allowed to love any person they choose, even a former enemy" message, which fits the spirit of the age of Enlightenment, when this was composed, to a T. Such is the beauty of Idomeneo.
I don't own the DVD but I have watched this Metropolitan Opera production in full twice, in preparation for seeing Idomeneo live at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, in November 2014. This DVD gets the collective "thumbs up". It has 100% of the "word of mouth" votes. If you ask around: "what Idomeneo shall I watch, in order to prepare myself for seeing it live", all the people that are "in-the-know" will point you towards this; it is "the one". It is not hard to understand why, once you've watched this: all singers are excellent, the best you could wish for. They make anyone else, who has ever sung their parts in this opera, sound rather "small". Singing-wise you can't beat this. Pavarotti is, well, Pavarotti. Ileana Cotrubas (who's also done one of the most soulful Traviata recordings I've ever owned) and Frederica von Stade (who must be THE definitive Cenerentola) are pure delights to listen to. And one can't find words high enough to praise Hildegard Behrens, who not only is a perfect fit here, but has long enthralled us with her smouldering interpretations of many a Richard Strauss heroine, all during her brilliant career.
This year Idomeneo seems to be all the rage in the world's opera stages. If you are going to catch it live somewhere now or in 2015, do please watch this first to see how it should be done. Only once you've seen this opera live will it become apparent to you just how great this DVD really is. Yet, at first viewing, this Metropolitan performance looks a bit aged, uninventive, too classic. "Too conventional" as another reviewer has put it here. Nevertheless, this approach feels much preferable to that of many current opera directors. I much prefer this DVD to what was on offer yesterday, when I saw Idomeneo live at Covent Garden. Our live experience and Mozart's sublime music were sabotaged by a very unconventional (yet abysmal) direction. Like this DVD's previous reviewer pointed out, she's not the only one that enjoys "conventional": many people have gotten tired of super-modern productions and are seeking refuge in olden-golden DVDs of this sort, which focus mainly on the excellent singing and less on a director's artistic ego and his/her need to "say something new". I didn't use to be one of them- was always thirsty for new and inventive interpretations of a work. Lately, however, after having been subjected to many a visionary director's (and their production team's) "interpretations" of classical works, I am starting to miss the good old-fashioned stagings, like the one you get here. Not only miss them- I crave them dearly. I get rashes just at the mention of those dreaded words: "in a new interpretation by"... Please, dear Director, if you wish to say something new, write or commission a new work - and leave Mozart well alone. Felt like this yesterday, when in ROH's current Idomeneo, the director went totally over the top. For starters, there were a lot of quasi-nazis in uniforms prancing about on the ROH stage, carrying guns. They were the Cretans. Then, there were the enslaved Trojans, at some point sporting gas masks (guess why). They were trying to escape from a gas chamber-maze (it's set in Crete, get it?). All this, in Mozart's Idomeneo. A work belonging to the "Age of the Enlightenment"- the "age of reason"- a work almost one and a half centuries removed from the 20th century. Once again, as is often the case with modern Austrian and German opera directors, who invariably seem to want to take their collective national guilts out on the works of defenceless (long-dead) classical music composers, Mozart and his sweet, ultra-melodic music became the unfortunate victims of director Martin Kusej's heightened sense of national pathos and remorse. Mr Kusej hates Nazis; so far so applaudable. Yet, for all his anti-totalitarian sentiment and his thoughtful approach, if you look at this performance close enough you'll notice that, alarmingly and rather naively, he appears to view nazis as some sort of crazy "cult". That is why he is using them to portray the Cretans, who are worshippers of Neptune. Now call me crazy, but it might be rather naïve (and dangerous) to dismiss fascism as a silly cult. Unless he was trying to make some sort of point, because in Act III the Cretans were transformed from the weird soldier-dominated cult they were before, into a people ready to save Idomeneo's son, Idamante, from pointless sacrifice. Hmmm. Wouldn't it have been better if Mr Kusej had saved these crypto-political comments for a venue more suited to them, rather than use Idomeneo as their vehicle? It got crazier: Apart from nazis, the director also seemed to disapprove of fish of any kind and, weirdly, hippies also fell foul of him; he seems to view them as some sort of totalitarian-like cult, too, (traumatic teenage memories from the 60ies, perhaps?) Yes, I did say hippies: during this ROH Idomeneo, audiences got a rare chance to witness the first cult-loving nazi hippies in operatic history- and it had to happen in a work as traditional- and as optimistic- as this. Also in the ROH Idomeneo (and not in your gossip mag's horoscopes' page), audiences were warned about the sign of Pisces, which "makes people's hearts go cold" (actual quote from the production's explanatory text, superimposed on the curtain). This is when things went off the rails. And might I comment, too: What? As a Piscean myself, I must object. We pisceans might occasionally walk in the clouds, but our hearts are warm! We should send some of our most famous tough-guy Pisces members to "sort Mr Kusej out" (Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis and Javier Bardem, are you listening? I call upon the ghosts of John Steinbeck and Sam Peckinpah, too). Besides, I thought we were living in the age of Aquarius...
So, who has lost their mind here, I or the director? Did I just now sound childish and crazy? It's because somewhere along the line, I lost the opera's actual plot and wished I was at home, watching this DVD instead. Sometimes, with all these "didactic" and "pedagogical" directors, who ruin classical works trying to "educate" the audience, the audience can lose our patience and want to throw a fit, like children do. We get the impulse to quit booking live opera tickets at exorbitant opera house prices and just stay at home and watch our conservative,"conventional" DVDs with the impeccable singing instead. Even if it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an opera as rarely performed as Idomeneo live on stage- and even if we've booked our tickets 4 months in advance.
If you don't get to see Idomeneo live any time soon, don't be sad: it just might be for the best. Thank your lucky (Pisces) stars, save your hard earned cash and buy this excellent -and very affordable- DVD instead. The only "downside" of this Metropolitan Opera production (as far as I can tell, because I watched this on line and do not own it) is that it is missing Mozart's actual finale to the opera: about 15 minutes of beautiful and haunting "ballet" music, which we were lucky to get at the ROH, but which apparently is rarely performed on most Idomeneo fully staged productions.