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Dramatically Dry, Musically Sumptuous Idomeneo

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
11/14/1999 -  and 16*, 19, and 23, November, 1, 5 and 11, December, 1999
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo
Barbara Bonney/Anna Netrebko (1, 5, and 11, December), Vesselina Kasarova (Idamante), Carol Vaness (Elettra), Norman Shankle (Arbace), Idomeneo (Gosta Winbergh), Virginia Pluth and Rachelle Perry (two Cretan maidens), Richard Walker and Jere Torkelsen (two Trojan men), Todd Geer (High Priest of Neptune), John Ames (voice of the oracle)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles (Conductor)
John Copley (Stage Director)

Even by operatic standards, Mozart's Idomeneo is on the static side. Despite the musical innovations that Mozart introduced to add dramatic intensity and connect the musical expression to textual meaning, it remains an opera with little interaction between characters. It remains an opera seria, made up primarily of a series of extended arias, many of which are proceeded by accompanied recitative and only rarely varied with the odd chorus or ensemble.
San Francisco Opera's revival of John Copley's 1989 production, with its fragmented classical elements accepts these limitations and focuses instead on the musical and vocal elements which are first rate. All of the singers are more than adequate for their roles and most of superb. The production features the company debuts of both Barbara Bonney as Ilia and Vesselina Kasarova as Idamante. And both deliver memorable performances.
Bonney, who has to open the opera with an extended solo scene short on melodic inventiveness and long on recitative, is beautiful to both see and hear. Hers is an elegant, graceful presence, moving with easy and nobility as Ilia, the Trojan Princess. Vocally, she conveys the same sense of regal stature with vocal purity, limpid phrasing and impeccable musicianship. Without sacrificing an ounce of vocal finesse, she conveys Ilia's inner turmoil as she battles her guilt at loving the son of her captor, rejoices when that love is returned and mourns the unhappy path that love takes her on.
As Idamante, Kasarova gave an impassioned, heartfelt performance, handling the role's vocal demands with aplomb and looking every inch the youthful warrior. Her movement never once struck a false chord, convincingly manly without resorting to stock gestures and posturing. Her plummy mezzo with its extended top sailed through the role with apparent ease.
In the title role, Gosta Winbergh combined the heroic and human elements to make a dramatically viable, believable and sympathetic Idomeneo. His sense of style and presence, both commanding and touching gave the role depth and breadth. While he sang the shorter version of "Fuor del mar", it sounded as though he could have tackled the longer version without problem.
Carol Vaness made a welcome return to Mozart as Elettra. It was gratifying to hear that after her not always so successful forays into heavier lyric and spinto repertory, that she can return to such roles as this, her vocal apparatus intact and sounding her best in years with this company. Her dramatic temperament is well suited to the role as well and her third act "D'Oreste e d'Aiace" was a splendid wedding of vocal and dramatic gifts.
Adler Fellow Norman Shankle sang the role of Arbace, including the first aria "Se il tuo duol", though this production followed the tradition of cutting the third act aria. Although his voice was a little light for the role, Shankle sang with his customary suaveness. His voice continues to show signs of growth and maturity, making his another notable contribution.
Maestro Donald Runnicles lead the relatively small orchestra in a performance that emphasized the serious, lofty aspects of the opera. The invocations, the marches and the prayerful moment were all with the utmost solemnity. The few dramatically dynamic moments in the score received their full due, but it was the sonorous dignity of the music that had the upper hand.
Once again John Copley directed his production with sets by John Conklin and costumes by Michael Stennett. Copley's approach was simple and allowed the singing and the music to be at the forefront. Some singers were at a greater disadvantage than others were with this approach, but all of them appeared comfortable and confident, able to give their best vocally and musically.
Conklin's settings, once past the unfocused opening scene, were a series of serene, classically inspired designs. Stennett's designs combine elements from ancient Roman and eighteenth century costumes in simple but effective ways. Elettra's costume, based Minoan snake goddess statues, was particularly striking.
With musical values receiving their full due and sterling casting for Idomeneo, the case for this opera was strongly presented. A more involved, inspired staging would have added to the overall impression, but there was much to savor in this opulently sung production.

Kelly Snyder



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