By Patrick O’Brien
In his book How to Write About Theatre, Mark Fisher poses three questions that any theatre reviewer should try to answer for the reader:
- What were the theatremakers trying to do?
- Did they do it well?
- Was it worth it?
Given the recent musicians’ strike at Lyric Opera that struck a chord not only in the Chicago scene, but the opera world as a whole, asking these questions of its current production of Mozart’s Idomeneo seems especially appropriate.
So, what were they trying to do?
Following the strike (and two cancellations), regardless of whatever reasons existed before, one could say the goal was simply to get Idomeneo up and running. This, they pulled off with aplomb, further aided by the audience’s goodwill, palpably tinged with relief. We did it, guys, we made it.
So, did they do it well?
If we really want to get technical, Lyric didn’t “do” much of it. This is a new-to-Chicago mounting directed and designed for the Met in 1982 by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, revived there not too long ago with Matthew Polenzani in the title role. And it’s certainly an impressive production to behold, a healthy mix of the Greek Classics with Renaissance etchings. Especially notable is the imposing stone face of the sea god Neptune that haunts the action. They get their money’s worth out of that stone face.
Hefty stuff, too, not easy to put on. This is considered the point where Mozart matured as a composer, drawing from the myth of Idomeneus (here called Idomeneo). The Cretan king, returning home from the Trojan War, makes a rash bargain with Neptune to be spared from shipwreck if he sacrifices the first living thing he sees upon landing. Unfortunately for him, that living thing is his son, prince Idamante, who is caught between two lovers: Ilia, captive daughter of Troy, and Elettra (a.k.a. Electra), the princess of Greek tragic infamy.
Musically, it’s superb, especially Idomeneo’s centerpiece aria in Act Two. Weighty, but not grandiloquent. Dramatically, let’s say librettist Giambattista Varesco was no Lorenzo da Ponte. Varesco takes his sweet time introducing the conflict, much less bringing everything to a boil. Its content approaches three hours in length and still requires a program note to relay exposition. Also, perhaps owing to the opera’s origins as a commission for a court carnival, there’s a happy ending that seems a little out of character on the part of the ill-tempered sea god.
The players are certainly more than up to the task and carry themselves well. Polenzani repeats his turn as Idomeneo here and is a rugged, authoritative voice throughout. Janai Brugger and Angela Brower are more than capable as the two lovers. Erin Wall turns the somewhat superfluous role of Elettra into a tragicomic ally extravagant highlight. Sir Andrew Davis as maestro adds another notch in his belt with this, his first IDOMENEO, and he (and the pit) got an extra cheer at the end.
So, was it worth it?
Hard to say. Again, the politics of the strike muddle things somewhat. But when one sounds it out—that in the face of declining attendance and rising costs, Lyric Opera mounted a 30-year-old production of a large-scale curiosity—it makes clear that, sooner or later, something may give way.
This is not meant to read as a portention of doom. Live theatre has been “dying” since its inception, and the people behind it are tenacious. Nor is it meant to sound like the Futurists of old who demanded the outright destruction of the past in order to move forward. No one can kill Mozart, after all. But if any company is going to give an opera its vote of confidence by producing it, they should be confident they can answer those three questions for themselves, no matter the circumstances surrounding it. What are they trying to do? Are they doing it well? And will it be worth it?
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Idomeneo ” through November 2 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Kyle Flubacker.