Bach Fest’s Idomeneo

By Louis Lebherz

TUESDAY EVENING at the Sunset Center, the Carmel Bach Festival offered “Mozart’s Idomeneo, Specially Adapted for Carmel.” The stage was set up for a concert with a large chorus upstage on risers, behind the chorus was a projection screen presumably for the supertitles, and the full Festival orchestra was set up in front of the chorus. Chairs and music stands were positioned on either side of the maestro’s podium. There were no opera sets, nor props on the crowded stage. It seemed to this listener that we were about to hear a concert version of Mozart’s early opera seria.

As the orchestra tuned, the Festival Dramaturge, David Gordan, took a seat with a microphone and a music stand. The overture was well conducted by maestro Paul Goodwin, and the orchestra played the virtuosic strains with great energy and proficiently eliciting the stormy sea. As the overture quieted down, soprano Clara Rottsolk walked on stage with her score in hand and placed it on one of the music stands. In the role of Illia, she sang the abbreviated recitativo leading up to her first aria, “Padre, germani, addio,” yet her obvious reliance on the score did not allow her rich soprano voice to soar into the auditorium and lacked the immediacy and emotion one expects in an opera.

At the conclusion of her aria, the music stopped and Mr Gordan in an ironic and somewhat humorous way proceeded to tell the story. He would remain the narrator throughout the production. (One suspects this was the “Specially Adapted” aspect of the evening.)

The son of the King Idomeneo of Crete, Idamante, sung by mezzo soprano Meg Bragle, entered. After an abridged recitative with Ilia, the daughter of the defeated Trojan king, he/she rendered her first aria, “Non ho colpa.” (The role was originally written for castrato or counter tenor, and was rewritten for tenor in a later version. This original 1781 version is often sung by a woman.) Ms Bragle, who has a lovely early-music sound, was unfortunately overpowered by the orchestra, and like Rottsolk, was tied to the music stand, further limiting her impact.

This aria was followed up with a very powerful chorus. The Festival choir sang throughout the evening with great style and intensity. They are an excellent ensemble.

The third lady of the evening, Mhairi Lawson, made her appearance at this point, and although her countenance and style exuded the troubled Elettra, daughter of Agamemnon, alas she too was distracted from her role by the music stand as she performed her first aria, “Tutte nel cor vi sento furie del cupo averno.”

CooleyAfter a rousing men’s chorus, the title character of Idomeneo, sung and played dramatically by tenor Thomas Cooley (pictured), made his first entrance upstage by the mens’ chorus, and sang in a stentorian voice the accompanied recitative. He then worked his way through the orchestra downstage and delivered his first aria, “Vedrommi intorno.” One could feel the relief in the house as finally one was witnessing an opera singer. He did not use the score, as had the three soloists before him, allowing him to gesture and emote as he explained his predicament of having made an oath to Neptune to kill the first person whom he encounters on his native shore should Neptune spare him and his ship’s crew as they were being wrecked by a violent storm at sea. Unfortunately, the first person he encounters is his son, Idamante, thereby setting up the rest of the story.

After a 20-minute intermission in the middle of the second act, the production took a turn for the worse as Mr Cooley also resorted to using a score and music stand, thereby severely cutting the fine communication he’d had with the audience in the first half. The trio and quartet pieces in the second half were well blended but again the use of books diminished the dramatic impact.

The idea of doing such a strong piece as Idomeneo within the Bach Festival is noble. However, opera is an extraordinary art form, encompassing all of the visual arts. It is not something that one should just perform as a concert piece.

Thirty years or so ago the Bach Festival successfully performed a few operas referring to them as semi-staged productions. The principal singers sang their parts from memory allowing them to interact with each other. There were hints of costumes to delineate roles, some sets were used as would fit in the limited space, and props were also used as needed. There was a stage-director who was responsible for the coherency of the production. The effect was very satisfying. One left Sunset Center feeling as though one had been to the opera.

This made a big problem with this Idomeneo. The entrances and exits were a distraction, the use of books by some made it all seem under-rehearsed. The judicious cuts, although necessary due to time constraints, were not well thought out. For example, the chorus and high priest in Act 3 are lamenting the damage wrought by the sea-monster and confront and petition the king. In the complete opera, Idamante comes on stage during this scene having just slain the dragon. In this case, the problem of the dragon is never rectified; it’s a critical omission. The fact that no props were used until the final scene when a supernumerary enters with the king holding a red cushion with a knife on it, and then setting the cushion upon a stool brought out to accommodate it, made it all seem silly. Also the elimination of the role of Arbace, the confidant of the king does not allow for the king’s character to fully develop. It would be a good idea for the Bach Festival to address these problems if they intend to continue to add opera to the repertoire in future seasons.

Louis Lebherz is a retired international operatic basso. He lives in Carmel.