Last night in the Northside Theatre at the Fort Mason Center, the Opera Academy of California (OAC) Summer Program For Emerging Singers gave its first performance of a full-length opera. The opera was Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 366); and it will receive three more performances tonight (July 15), tomorrow night (July 16), and Sunday afternoon (July 17). Each of the four performances has a different cast, providing the greatest number of opportunities for the participating students.
It would be fair to say that Idomeneo was Mozart’s first mature opera. He was in his mid-twenties when he composed it; and it predates Le Nozze di Figaro (K. 492), his first collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, by about five years. Among his operas with Italian texts, it tends to receive less attention that the da Ponte projects. One reason may be that it is based on a far more serious libretto by Giambattista Varesco. Another is that the music follows the older traditions of opera seria, with relatively little action and elaborately prolonged arias. Finally, the plot itself is set in Crete after the conclusion of the Trojan War, which many audiences often view with a sense of detachment.
Thus, probably the most important thing about this current production is that there is nothing detached Stage Director David Ostwald’s approach to the libretto. This is immediately apparent when we realize that all of the Trojan prisoners are women wearing head scarves. Even before we see Idomeneo himself in military camouflage, it is clear that the setting involves the consequences of a prolonged war between “Western” and “Eastern” forces that resonates with contemporary conditions. As to the “traditional” sense of extended pace, Music Director Michel Singher prepared a judiciously edited version of the score, conducted at a pace through which the unfolding of the plot proceeded at a “contemporary” rate. Thus, from the perspectives of both staging and music, the seriousness of the libretto was well served.
So it should be. This is a tale of consequences that ensue in the wake of a ten-year siege. In the tradition of Homeric myth, this was a conflict in which the gods took different sides, meaning that the victors in battle still had to contend with the wrath of those gods who had supported the vanquished. As in Homer’s Odyssey, the most wrathful of these is the God of the Sea, Poseidon to the Greeks and Neptune to the Romans (and Varesco). In Idomeneo that wrath sows conflict between father and son, victor and captors, and with a refugee princess from the murder-laden House of Atreus. There is also a climax at which Neptune finally withdraws his wrath in an episode that curiously parallels the Biblical Sacrifice of Isaac, almost as if Varesco felt obliged to insert Old Testament values into a tale based in pagan mythology.
From the point of view of staging, the most important issue is how the individual characters confront the consequences that befall them. Ostwald’s techniques provided convincing portrayals of human beings in distress, rather than flimsy puppets whose strings are being pulled by the gods. He treated every aria as a slice of humanity examined from a different point of view, and all of the student soloists offered compelling realizations of Ostwald’s interpretative perspectives. The result is as stimulating a production as one might encounter with a professional opera company, if not more so because of the intimacy of the Northside Theatre setting.
Tickets for the remaining three performances, as well as the productions of the other two operas being offered (Mark Adamo’s Little Women and Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile), may be purchased through the Calendar page of the OAC Web site.