Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Review of Mozart, Idomeneo Performed in New York by Les Arts Florissants
by John Wall
27 August 2006
I was fortunate to attend Opera Lafayette's production of Idomeneo this June, with superb, historically-informed staging of the ballets by the New York Baroque Dance Company. (Review.) For a different perspective, I went to the second of two performances of Idomeneo by Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie, at the Rose Theater in New York City on August 25th. It was the last concert of the 40th Anniversary Mostly Mozart Festival. Despite a humdrum, modern semi-staging that interfered with the soloists' projection, the LAF production was a musical success, with typically excellent playing, singing and conducting.
This was my first visit to the Rose Theater, the relatively new venue of Lincoln Center jazz concerts. It occupies most of the 5th through 7th floors of a high-rise building at the corner of West 60th Street and Broadway. A well-attended, pre-concert interview of Mr. Christie by Evans Mirageas was held in the Atrium, a large, open space on the 5th floor. While Mr. Mirageas spoke at least as clearly as David Letterman's announcer, Mr. Christie's voice unfortunately was muffled and distorted by the PA system, making some of his answers unintelligible. Mr. Christie covered a range of topics, from the history of Idomeneo, to Les Arts Florissants, to recent changes in Mozart performance practice, to the incompetent New York Times review of Wednesday's performance, to Le Jardin des Voix, his program for young artists in which Claire Debono (Ilia) had participated. I was surprised, in light of his dedication to French baroque opera, that he declared Idomeneo to be the finest tragédie-lyrique.
The horizontal footprint of the Rose Theater, which seats 1094, is nearly a circle, with an extension at the rear for four rows of additional seats. More than half the seats are in the orchestra, which is ringed by one-deep boxes with four, movable arm chairs per box. There are two balconies with similar rings of boxes as well as folding seats at the back. I sat in a box near the center on the top level and found it to be comfortable, with excellent view and sound. Chairs can be moved back for extra legroom, and a railing at the end of the box provided a private armrest.
Rose Theater has a low ceiling of suspended acoustic panels, I believe only a few feet above the top row of the balcony. With little space for sound waves to travel, the sound is bright and direct, with no noticeable reverberation.
The orchestra filled the center of the stage, with winds on platforms behind the strings. The chorus usually sang from a platform across the back, and the soloists wandered about, more often than not singing from the front of the stage. A video camera on the floor aimed at Mr. Christie projected his image to hidden monitors for the singers when they were between Mr. Christie and the audience. The first violins and violas were seated to the left and the second violins, cellos and bass violins to the right. In the center, immediately in front of Mr. Christie, was the continuo section, consisting of Matthew Halls, harpsichord, David Simpson, cello, and Jonathan Cable, bass violin. Horns were at the upper left and trumpets and drums at the upper right, with woodwinds in between.
The orchestra played superbly. It seemed well rehearsed and executed Mozart's long crescendos with precision. While Andrew Appel made the best case for fortepiano continuo in Idomeneo at the Opera Lafayette production, I personally preferred the harpsichord continuo, reinforced by bass strings, used by Mr. Christie. In all likelihood, a harpsichord was the keyboard continuo instrument at the Munich opera in 1781.
All four principal soloists sang well. Paul Agnew was particularly impressive in the role of Idomeneo. He has an agile voice and outstanding technique, and handled the difficult divisions in the original version of "Fuor del mar ho un mar in seno" with ease. Despite being called upon in the goofy staging to dash about, get down, get up, and face in different directions, Mr. Agnew managed better than the other principals to avoid sudden changes in volume due to position changes, perhaps because sound is less directional at lower frequencies than at higher frequencies.
Claire Debono in the role of Ilia was my favorite of the three female soloists. Violet Noorduyn as Elettra and and Tuva Semmingsen as Idamante also sang well. All the principal roles other than Idamante were performed significantly better than in the Opera Lafayette production. However, the high voices suffered noticeably from the walkabout staging. They could suddenly be drowned out by the orchestra when they turned to the side or rear, but come back to normal when they turned toward the audience. I would not want to own a recording of a live performance of this staging.
The secondary soloists were also excellent, in particular Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, tenor, as the High Priest of Neptune and Arbace. (Both of Arbace's arias were cut.) Some of the most consistently enjoyable performances were by the soloists from the choir, Nicole Dubrovitch, soprano, Lina Markeby, mezzo-soprano, Maurizio Rossano, tenor, and Ludovic Provost, bass, as they stood in place and faced the audience when singing.
As usual with LAF, choral singing was polished and precise. The echo chorus worked perfectly, from an area out of view at the right rear of the stage.
So much music was cut, including all of the beautiful ballet music, that the total time of performance was just 2 hours and 22 minutes. I noticed only one aria performed by LAF but not by Opera Lafayette -- Elettra's demanding rage aria at the end of Act III.
While I always object to projected surtitles in lieu of a usable, bi-lingual libretto and enough light to read it, the surtitles at the Rose Theater were the worst of the worst. Not only did they lack sufficient contrast, with black letters on a gray background, but three spotlights immediately above the surtitles that were aimed toward the audience made looking at the titles like undergoing an ophthalmologic examination.
Surtitles have been promoted as a way to convey plots to audiences who are unable understand foreign languages. However, they actually are an enemy of understanding and keep audiences in the dark, both literally and figuratively. The effort to reach out to the lowest common denominator (which in America is really low, even among graduates of Harvard and Yale -- see, e.g., "Oilman Bush has gas in background") fails because the people for whom it is intended either can't read well enough to follow the titles or lack sufficient interest to try. However, members of the audience who might like to read the libretto and follow the texts are denied the opportunity. I would much preferred to have looked at a libretto than at the so-called staging.
A 56-page booklet provided to the audience included five pages of basic notes on Idomeneo by Kathryn L. Libin, including at least one glaring typo -- "Antoine Campra".
Idomeneo, Rè di Creta K.366
Les Arts Florissants