Few things are as encouraging as an opera well started; few things are as discouraging as a bad start. You think you are in for a long night—and you may well be.
On Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera, Mozart’s Idomeneo started very, very well. The overture was arresting, with the orchestra carving out Mozart’s notes. This was not “period” Mozart; it was not “bloated” Mozart; it was right Mozart.
May we speak candidly? Idomeneo can be a long night, a snoozeroo. There needs to be “energy in the executive,” and, in addition to being energetic, the conductor must know what he’s doing, musically. Idomeneo is an opera seria. It can seem “one damn thing after another,” as someone once said about history. On this evening, the opera moved. It made sense. The different arias and episodes were stitched together. The performance hit the mark, musically and emotionally.
There was never anything flabby. The music never sagged. It had an underlying tension, when it should have. Nothing was bland. The orchestra, and the music-making generally, was clean but not clinical. There was incisiveness, or “bite.” The orchestra featured little surges, or jolts of energy. In dynamics, there were astute contrasts.
You know what can kill this score? Can kill Idomeneo? Sameness.
So, this was a real Mozart conductor in the pit, and a real conductor. He was Manfred Honeck, one of the best conductors of this age. The PSO—the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra—is his orchestra. Pittsburghers are lucky to have this Austrian, an alumnus of the Vienna Philharmonic (viola).
Act I of Idomeneo ends with a D-major chorus. On Friday night, it was glorious. It was bright, bracing, and uplifting. It had the character of some of Mozart’s religious music. This chorus was worth the price of admission alone. But there was a lot more.
Michael Spyres was in the title role. He is an American tenor, from Missouri. His singing was beautiful and unforced. It had Mozartean agility, but also some weight—some beyond-Mozart weight. Spyres handled his passagework with relative ease. In his big Act II aria, “Fuor del mar,” he sang a high D at the end. It was not especially pretty. But it was there, and it was brave.
After the aria, the audience cheered and bravo’d for about a minute (which is an awfully long time). The tenor had his back turned, all the while. I was thinking, “It must be nice to hear that. To bask in it for a minute.”
Near the end of the opera, Idomeneo says to Idamante, “Oh figlio! Oh caro figlio! Perdona.” “Oh, son! Oh, dear son! Forgive me.” This moment had great tenderness, great meaning. I thought of the sublime “Contessa, perdono,” near the end of another Mozart opera, The Marriage of Figaro.
At some point in the evening, I scribbled in my notes, “t—l.r.!” What could that mean? The “t” indicates “tenor.” And the “l.r.” stands for “lower register.” The lower register of Michael Spyres sounded quasi-baritonal to me. The next day, I Googled him, and found that he describes himself as a “baritenor.” In fact, he recorded an album called BariTenor.
In the role of Ilia was Ying Fang, the Chinese soprano. She has long stood out in Mozart. I recall an Exsultate, jubilate that she sang with the New York Philharmonic in 2016. I wrote,
Sometimes the words could have been clearer, and Ying Fang did not show much of a lower register. But these problems were insignificant. . . . May Ying Fang be wonderful for a long time to come. I imagine she will be.
As Ilia, she sang in long, beautiful phrases. Her intonation—her ability to sing on pitch—seems natural. (Intonation is a mystery. Some are born with it, apparently; some are not. Some can learn it. Some always struggle.) Ying Fang was consistently musical, even in her recitatives, which was fortunate, because there are a lot of them in this opera. Could I understand her? Understand the words? Not always. But this did no great harm.
Ying Fang is a “light lyric,” and sometimes you had to lean in a bit, to hear her. But she can penetrate, and she can also scald, when she wants. The Metropolitan Opera House is not an ideal house for Idomeneo, or other Mozart. But no one house is ideal for everything, as far as I know.
Kate Lindsey, too, is a lyric, if not a light one. Lightish? In any event, she is an American mezzo-soprano, a veteran by this point. Her assignment was Idamante, a trouser role. She was intelligent and secure, as usual. Critically, she did not oversing. She did not try to make her instrument bigger, for this grand house. She works with what she has.
In duet, Ying Fang and Kate Lindsey were affecting, as well as effective—truly Mozartean.
A second soprano, Federica Lombardi, from Italy, was Elettra (or “Elektra,” as we know her from the Strauss opera). Signora Lombardi is what you might call a “dramatic soprano, Mozart branch.” She has what I characterize as “lyric heft.” She made a very good Elettra.
The character’s big aria is “D’Oreste, d’Ajace,” a mini–mad scene. Leontyne Price sang it in recital, for years. I can just hear her playing with the syncopation toward the end. Lombardi did something odd in her downward, staccato scales: she rushed them. Deliberately? Was this something worked out between her and Maestro Honeck? I don’t know. I had never heard the scales done that way before. Also, Lombardi sang a high C at the end—that, I had never heard either.
Who else? Issachah Savage, an American tenor, was the high priest. He provided fine and burnished sounds. And for our grand Fanale, let’s consider Paolo Fanale, another tenor, an Italian, who sang Arbace. He was at times just a little tight. But he sang his music—not easy music—commendably.
By the way, Idomeneo is an unusually high-voiced opera. Have you noticed that? There is the mezzo-soprano singing Idamante, true. But that is pretty high. Then you have a slew of sopranos and tenors. Some scholar or researcher can tell us whether there are other operas as high. Otello—Rossini’s, not Verdi’s—has six tenors. Count ’em, six. That must be a record, or near it.
The Met’s production of Idomeneo premiered in 1982. It is the work of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who died in 1988. At intermission on Friday night, someone remarked to his companion, “This may be the last Ponnelle production”—the last production by that great Frenchman still to appear on a stage.
Allow me to give you two footnotes. Early on in Act I, an usher walked down an aisle, saying, “No filming.” An audience member shushed him viciously. Did the audience member know the man doing the talking was an usher? Probably not. A strange, slightly comic, moment.
After the opera was over, the principal cast members, and the conductor, took their bows in front of the curtain. The curtain never opened again. The chorus (which had sung superbly) and others did not bow. Something unusual.
What a great night of Mozart it was, proving the worth of Idomeneo, not a popular opera, necessarily, but a masterpiece (of course).