Lincoln Center Upstages Itself

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The New York Sun

In 1982, James Levine dragged the opera “Idomeneo” kicking and screaming into the mainstream Metropolitan stable, introducing the work with a very strong cast — including three females, Ilena Cotrubas, Hildegard Behrens, and Frederica von Stade, who were unassailable — and augmenting the performance with a very fine Luciano Pavarotti as the title hero. This season, Mr. Levine will revive the work during the Met’s very first week of its season, again filling the role of the son with a woman. But the Mostly Mozart Festival got the jump on him Wednesday evening by offering their own version at the Rose Theater, featuring the French assemblage Les Arts Florissants and their groundbreaking conductor William Christie.

Since everyone is mad for productions these days, I should mention rather early on that there wasn’t one. This performance was semi-staged — that is, there were no sets or costumes, but the characters made an attempt at physical interaction. “Idomeneo” is the quintessential island story, the king of Crete forced to placate Neptune by all means necessary, including human sacrifice. Idamante loves Ilia, Elettra loves Idamante, and Idomeneo just wants peace for his people. At last season’s mounting of Handel’s Hercules at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the players had essentially a giant sandbox in which to cavort. This year, the orchestra itself became their island universe. Director Elsa Rooke deserves praise for making much of the singing actors’ movement fluid, but there was a bit too much looking out to sea for my taste.

This configuration, however, allowed us all to observe Mr. Christie in action. He is a surprisingly energetic conductor whose gestures are clear and communicative. He sometimes stood in the midst of duets, beaming like a proud paterfamilias. Mr. Christie has a reputation similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock, molding unknown singers into giving their finest performance efforts that exactly follow his will. The evening also provided the opportunity to hear and see this superb period instrument orchestra as featured participants, so clean and crisp, so together in crescendo and diminuendo that they simply put the regular Mostly Mozart forces to shame.

The finest voice of the evening belonged to Claire DeBono as Ilia. Hers is a burnished instrument, secure in upper and lower registers and extremely well–managed in little details like individual note dynamics and elongated lyrical line. Her “Se il padre perdei” in Act II was thrilling, her Zeffiretti lusinghieri in Act III forceful and heroic.Violet Noorduyn as Elettra was less enjoyable, many of her notes seeming strained and exploded — as if shot out of a cannon. She did hold her own in the “Pria di partir” trio and fashioned a well acted, if not transcendentally sung death scene.

Tuva Semmingsen was excellent in the literal trouser role — she was the only cast member allowed to wear a pantsuit — of Idamante. The role of Idamante was conceived for a castrato, at just the time when this species became extinct. Mozart himself rewrote the part for tenor, and the controversy for modern conductors is whether to cast the amorous son as a male or a female. Not a radiant voice, but a strong and steady one, Ms. Semmingsen does quite a bit of the heavy lifting in this work. Establishing herself with a powerful “Il padre adorato ritrovo e lo perdo” in the first act, she emerged as the strong anchor in the highlight of the opera, the quartet “Andro ramingo e solo” near the conclusion of Act III.

The only real disappointment was Paul Agnew’s rather pale Idomeneo. Maybe I’m spoiled by Pavarotti, but a small and sweet voice just doesn’t cut it as the proud, if conflicted, king. Although Mr. Agnew was strong in his fioriture, especially in the febrile aria “Fuor del mar ho un mar in seno,” he never seemed right for the part, not to mention his wooden gestures and “is it raining?” acting style (holding up one palm). Carlo Vincenzo Allemano was an impressive Arbace and the chorus was eloquent throughout.

The last voice to emerge was the offstage deus ex machina oracle of Simon Kirkbride. Here was a presence of regal power. Pity he’s a bass-baritone; he might have made a knockout Idomeneo.

Until August 25 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).

The New York Sun

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