“Idomeneo, re di Creta” (Idomeneus, King of Crete) premiered in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production at Metropolitan Opera October 14, 1982, fully 201 years after the 25-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus #Mozart’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece had its 1781 Münich premiere. The beloved Maestro James Levine was key in bringing about its premiere, and the Met has tried to make up for lost time, presenting a total of 67 performances through 2006, stuffed to the gills with top-notch talent. Now after a 10-year absence it returns for a six-performance run, March 6-26.
Doing title honors
This time American #Tenor Matthew Polenzani—an audience favorite—brings his trademark sonic elegance, facility with florid embellishment and wide-ranging dynamics to the legendary stage. His gorgeous voice pierces the densest orchestral output, but, even better, wafts the softest, whispered tones aloft, somehow also reaching the upper balconies with ease. His six scheduled performances are themselves a considerable achievement. That 15 performances follow—nine as the unnamed Italian Singer in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” overlapping with five as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” … well, obviously he’s just showing off.
In 1982, the late Luciano Pavarotti became the Met’s first of nine tenors to portray the tormented king, a role he sang there seven times. His chief rival, Plácido Domingo, has sung it at the Met 20 times. Other esteemed Idomeneos there include Siegfried Jerusalem, not chiefly known for Mozartian roles, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Ben Heppner. A whatever-happened-to category comprises the remaining four exponents: William Lewis (three), Herman Malamood and Kobie van Rensburg (four each), and, with a whopping nine performances, David Rendall.
Music Director Emeritus James Levine will conduct this, his highly regarded work, as he has done 46 times before at the Met. He certainly has done much to help audiences appreciate it, despite it’s being unlike any other Mozart work.
The Met doesn’t use Mozart’s operas as opportunities to feature young opera singers. Instead, high-profile singers typically appear, which is proper since—according to Maestra Eve Queler—Mozart’s are the most difficult operas to perform. British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote will portray Idomeneo’s doomed son, Prince Idamante. American soprano Nadine Sierra and Chinese soprano Ying Fang alternate as his love interest, Princess Ilia. Highly praised South African soprano Elza van den Heever returns as the crazed Elettra, obsessed with Idamante. British baritone Alan Opie sings Arbace, Idomeneo’s confidant.
The 1982 premiere
Pavarotti headlined the Metropolitan Opera premiere of “Idomeneo,” making it a hot ticket. He then was still in the midst of his see-how-loud-I-can-holler days, before he discovered modulation in the mid-1990s. Merely tolerating him, I went chiefly to see the trio of ladies performing the other major roles: mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (Idamante), dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens (Elettra) and soprano Ileana Cotrubas (Ilia). Ah, when angels sing, surely they sound like her.
Ileana Cotrubas as Princess Ilia:
On the verge of proposing, I invited an enchanting woman to the Met’s premiere of “Idomeneo” back in 1982. Already a fan for a few years, I knew my way around an opera house but had never heard a note of this then-rarity. That was a mistake. My date, an opera virgin, didn’t know what to make of this seemingly dry, static stage work, and I couldn’t make a convincing defense to help us both enjoy the performance (more). Fortunately she forgave me, accepted my proposal and has sat next to me at upwards of 200 opera performances since then. When we see Matthew Polenzani in this run, we will be about to celebrate 34 years of musical marriage.