Idomeneo: a lyrical turning-point

Idomeneo is a major turning-point, not just in Mozart’s music, but in the history of opera. Albert Einstein said of Idomeneo that it was “one of those works that even a genius of the highest rank like Mozart could only write once in his life.” And it’s unquestionably radically different from anything Mozart composed before or afterwards. It’s austere, with no background harpsichord music; there is a strong sense of continuity between its different parts; and even a hint of dissonance, which for the time is incredibly daring, as if Mozart were showing the way to Strauss; Idomeneo, the main part, is a powerful tenor, yet a castrato (“mio molto amato castrato del prato”) also plays a principal part in the first distribution; and Mozart innovates by introducing wind instruments, which was unprecedented in an opera.

I’m not a fan of orchestral music, have a preference for soprano arias and can find exceedingly rich scores rather overbearing. So when I first listened to Idomeneo, I must have put the compact-disk away and not listened to it again for ten years or so. Much the same thing happened to it in Mozart’s lifetime: it was only produced once after its creation, and was hardly ever heard again in the nineteenth century in Austria and Germany.

I also knew Gerard Mortier would know everything there was to know about the work’s musical qualities, and that he would ensure the most was made of it. So I was pretty enthusiastic as I made my way to the Palais Garnier, accompanied by my friend Loic, for the first performance, directed by Luc Bondy. There had been nothing of interest to see there in over a month, so the place was packed. the gauche caviar were there in force, all agog with the news that Madame Royal had been designated as the Socialist candidate for the presidential election.

We were told at the last minute that Ramon Vargas, who was due to sing the leading role, was “suffering”, as the French so poetically put it. Charles Workman, who replaced him, had just one day to prepare, but fortunately knew the score because he had recently sung that same part at the Deutsche Oper and at Ancona. Mireille Delunsch 5electra) was in top form, as was Camilla Tilling (Ilia). Thomas Hengelbrock, who directed, was splendidly precise and understated, as the work requires: the tempo was handled perfectly, and his overall style was brisk without excess. As a result, there never was any sense of “wallowing” such as you can sometimes get with operas of this length (three and a quarter hours).

The set, however, was horrible. Poor Mireille Delunsch nearly fell over several times as she tried to sing her part in the middle of the sandy and rocky stage. The costumes looked as if they had ben bought in a sale at Gap. And the curtain got stuck at the end, just as the old crusties in the audience started booing the director. This was rather funny and probably well-deserved (although I never boo myself). Anyway, sets don’t matter that much with Mozart operas, which can be judged principally on their strictly musical merits. In this case, full marks were deserved.