Opera commentary on a 236-year-old aria is what you rightly expect from Everything Music and Theatre, and it will brace you for Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Mozart’s early masterpiece “Idomeneo, rè di Creta” (Idomeneus, King of Crete), which opens March 6. American tenor Matthew Polenzani gave Blasting News a hint of what happens while performing an aria di bravura, in this case, Idomeneo’s great Act II “Fuor del mar,” an expressive number of wildly conflicting thoughts and emotions, conveyed in energetic, rapid-fire musical passages. Mozart wrote literally thousands of notes for the orchestral score of this six-minute piece—643 notes for the tenor’s vocal line alone—and expected the tenor to pack in dozens more of his own at places indicated in the score.

Dizzy yet? Hold on tight.

Opera aria text

The aria’s poetic Italian text totals only 44 words. They assess Idomeneo’s heart being awash as something deadlier than shipwreck, which he barely escaped, having been washed ashore. He taunts Neptune, calls him ‘implacable’ and ‘fierce god,’ and asks “If my heart is so close to shipwreck, what doomed destiny now forbids it to flounder?” (Translation mine.) So what’s going on?

Opera context

Idomeneo had been off fighting the Trojan wars. About to perish, he called on Neptune and swore an oath to this effect: ‘Get me out of this alive, and I’ll sacrifice to you the first person I see when I arrive at my home port.’ (How kind, eh?) So who does he see when his battered ship gets him ashore?

His own son, Prince Idamante, who doesn’t recognize him—so long have they been apart. Now what to do? Well, Idomeneo stews about it, royally. By the time Act II is underway, he can hold back no longer.

Opera in Mozart’s masterful hands

“Fuor del mar” is daunting. Minor cuts are sometimes taken, or a production may use an alternative edition with just under 400 notes for the tenor.

Matthew Polenzani, when asked if he has to say a little prayer before tackling it, says: “Once I’m onstage, I’m in Idomeneo’s head, and he’s only got room for one prayer: to figure out a way to keep his son alive.”

Opera conflict from within

In this bravura aria, the tenor manages to exhibit his trademark pianissimi—those exquisite skin-tingling whispered phrases—for touching effect, no easy feat.

“Considering the conflict and inner turmoil that’s going on in Idomeneo’s world,” he says, “they are a bit hard to include in this aria. He’s upset, worried and angry. These things makes it hard to sing quietly.” Nevertheless, listen for them. Mr. Polenzani says quiet moments abound throughout the opera, and he tries to make the most of them … um, very quietly.

Opera moments a tenor relishes

What moments in “Idomeneo” particularly enthuse Matthew Polenzani? “Idomeneo has lots of great musical moments: his opening aria when he contemplates the death he is about to cause; the Act II aria, when he rails at Neptune; the moment in Act III when he reveals to the public who the sacrificial victim must be; the great recitative at opera’s end when he addresses the people and cedes the throne to his son; the quartet, with not much for Idomeneo to do but which is absolutely incredible.

The whole opera is filled with fabulous melodies—truly some of Mozart’s most inventive and beautiful music.” So did you get that? Numerous reasons not to miss this unduly rare opportunity.

Opera what-ifs

What if a star tenor warms up and feels like he has, at most, just 600 of the 643 notes for this aria? Our tenor candidly says: “You have to depend on technique, sheer will and experience to get you through. If a section of coloratura won’t be as clean as you want it to be, you trust that delivering a line dramatically and musically will be convincing.

Beyond that, having someone as sensitive as James Levine in the pit also helps!” Yes, the beloved maestro will be providing loving support to his singers.

Idomeneo,” by Mozart: six performances March 6-25. Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, N.Y.