Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Review of Mozart, Idomeneo by Opera Lafayette with the New York Baroque Dance Company
by John Wall
6 June 2006
Last weekend I attended both performances of Mozart's Idomeneo (Munich 1781) by Opera Lafayette, directed by Ryan Brown, at the Dekelboum Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Maryland. What drew me to these concert performances were staged divertissements at the end of each act by the New York Baroque Dance Company. The divertissements were even better than anticipated, as they reflected new research into the dances and costumes of the period by Catherine Turocy since her last staging of the Idomeneo ballets in 1991 and an unusual yet effective depiction of the sea monster by three dancers in reptilian costume, each with large fabric props to simulate waves.
Ms. Turocy explained at the two (much different) pre-concert discussions that her sources included the Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Dancing, by Gennaro Magri (Naples 1779; English translation by Mary Skeaping, Dance Books 1988), and unpublished letters from Auguste Ferrère, a prominent choreographer between 1752 and 1781 who invented new dance notation symbols, to his son, also a dance choreographer, housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Differences between ballets of the period of Idomeneo and those of the early 18th Century, many of which I would not have noticed without Ms. Turocy's guidance, included: costumes of lighter fabric; shoes made of softer leather and with lower heels; very athletic jumps -- Italian women dancers were known for acrobatics; dancers beginning to dance on toes; dancers lifting one leg to above knee height of the other leg; couples facing each other, reflecting the assimilation of social dancing into ballet at a time when fine art was not separated from popular art; arms lifted over the head; more oblique lines versus more vertical lines in Lully; and a man lifting a woman. Ms. Turocy cited evidence from 1801-02 as a source for the latter, but added that she also discovered that the "woman" would have been played by a man since such contact between the sexes was not considered acceptable at the time. She also discussed what Magri referred to as "attitude", which was a chosen pose to depict a frame of mind or state of emotion. It was not a static pose, but a sustained moment in time.
Idomeneo is not a typical dramma per musica, but, like Mitridate, a translation of a French tragedy. Unlike Mitradate, which Mozart composed for great singers, including three castratos, Idomeneo was written for a cast that included only one castrato, a newcomer who Mozart considered to be inadequate as a singer and actor. The star was the famous tenor, Anton Raaff, then aged 66, and the two female roles were taken by the Italian sisters-in-law married to the Wendling brothers of the Mannheim orchestra. Mozart initially was forced to expand the minor role of Arbace to include two arias for a veteran signer in the Munich troupe, Domenico de' Panzachi.
Other than four arias that Mozart cut, Idomeneo lacks the lengthy, ternary arias of Mitridate that were still favored in Milan in 1770. Instead, Idomeneo, with its binary arias, extensive accompanied recitative, choruses, ballets, and voice of a deity, seems more closely related to the French operas of Gluck, two of which, Iphégenie en Aulide and Iphégenie en Tauride, Mozart had attended during his visit to Paris. As Daniel Heartz wrote in "Sacrifice Dramas" (in Mozart's Operas, University of California Press 1990, page 7):
Idomeneo is a masterwork that has been resuscitated by the historical performance movement. The first Idomeneo I attended, a concert performance featuring Eleanor Steber as Elettra in 1966, was about as boring as classical music can be. In contrast, John Eliot Gardiner's 1990 recording is quite appealing, though the length may put off some listeners as it includes much music cut by Mozart before the initial performance. But for overall impact, no audio recording can compare with a live performance with historically-informed ballets.
While esthetically challenged, the Dekelboum Concert Hall is acoustically superb. It has the sound of Symphony Hall and the appearance of Madison Square Garden and has become the favored hall for large groups in the Washington area. (If you visit, be sure to have a look at the enormous, bronze Diamondback Terrapin across the street at the entrance to the football stadium.) Since I think the sound is best near the top and in any event prefer to be as high as possible when surtitles are projected above the stage, I sat in the middle of the unpopulated last row of the balcony and watched through binoculars.
The Opera Lafayette classical orchestra, directed by Ryan Brown, occupied elevated platforms at the middle and rear of the stage, leaving room for the dancers at the front. The most interesting instrument was a wind machine, consisting of a drum on a spindle parallel to the ground with outer slats covered by a canvas tarp. To produce wind noise, the percussionist turned a crank on one end of the drum. It was used during the antiphonal chorus, which otherwise was a bit disappointing due to logistics. The two choirs were not sufficiently separated physically or acoustically to produce the echo that can be heard in some concert halls and on recordings.
Since most performers with classical woodwinds have instruments pitched at a=430, that determines the pitch of classical HIP performances except in France, where many performers now have classical woodwinds at lower French pitches. (The pitch at Mannheim probably was lower than 430 in 1780, though higher than the opera pitch in Paris.) Since 430 is a common pitch for fortepianos, they fit well into 430 classical orchestras, although it is probable that a harpsichord would have been the keyboard continuo instrument in 1781, in a smaller auditorium. The Opera Lafayette performances used a fine sounding fortepiano by Thomas and Barbara Wolf, expertly played by Andrew Appel, who inserted snippets from familiar Mozart keyboard sonatas into introductory cadences. Overall, the orchestral performance was good.
The best of the soloists was Stephanie Houtzeel as Idamante. Unlike the others, she memorized her part, allowing her to look at the audience and to gesture. She sings with minimal vibrato, and a hazard of not using vibrato is the revelation of all intonation variances, a trade-off which I will gladly accept. On occasion she sounded flat, while Elettra sometimes sounded sharp despite heavy vibrato. Ilia was overpowered by the orchestra, and Idomeneo couldn't handle the difficult divisions. Mr. Brown followed most of Mozart's own cuts, thus reducing Arbace's part to a few recitatives and replacing Elettra's great rage aria in Act III with an accompanied recitative.
The audience was furnished with excellent program notes by Nizam Kettaneh, but unfortunately with only skeletal information about the dances and no libretto. Projecting an English translation over the stage is a vastly inferior method of conveying the texts than a complete, bi-lingual libretto.
A theme in other reviews is that a full staging would have been preferable. I disagree. In all likelihood, the time, money, and effort required for an historical staging simply would not be available under any circumstances. What we would get would be just another lackluster modern staging, which are a dime a dozen nowadays. Ideally, singers would memorize their parts and act them out with baroque gesture, but that also would require additional time and expense and specialized coaching. The costumed baroque dancers in the divertissements easily made up for any deficiencies in the staging.
For more about Mozart's Idomeneo, see the first three articles in Daniel Heartz, Mozart's Operas, University of California Press 1990. For more about dance in the late 18th Century, see The Grotesque Dancer on the Eighteenth-Century Stage, by Rebecca Harris-Warrick and Bruce Alan Brown (eds), University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.
Mozart, Idomeneo, Rè di Creta K.366. Opera Lafayette with the New York Baroque Dance Company. Ryan Brown and Catherine Turocy, artistic directors. Idomeneo: Robert Breault, tenor; Idamante: Stephanie Houtzeel, mezzo-soprano; Ilia: Kirsten Blaise, soprano; Elettra: Millicent Scarlet, soprano; Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno: Robert Baker, tenor; Arbace: Tony Boutté, tenor; La Voce: François Loup, bass. Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Friday, June 2, 2006 at 7:30 pm & Saturday, June 3, 2006 at 7:30 pm.