Wolfgang Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” which premiered in 1781 just two days after his 25th birthday, looks as much backward as it does forward.
On one hand, the young composer is struggling to throw off the constraints of opera seria that dominated much of the 18th century, and on the other hand, this infrequently staged work presages his celebrated creations that are yet to come.
In short, it has its dramatic shortcomings. But “Idomeneo” is nonetheless Mozart’s first true masterpiece, and Thursday evening it returned in grand, largely engaging style to the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago for the first time in 21 years.
The opera is set in Crete after the Trojan War. To save his returning forces from a disastrous storm at sea, the Cretan king, Idomeneo vows to Neptune to sacrifice the first person he sees upon his return — a fateful promise that sets in motion a story of thwarted love and familial conflict.
LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO — ‘Idomeneo’ ★★★1⁄2 When: 2 p.m. Oct. 21; 7 p.m. Oct. 24; 2 p.m. Oct 28; 7 p.m. Nov. 2 Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $39-$279 Info: lyricopera.org
Lyric Opera has revived a production from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where it debuted in 1982. This staging, which is being seen in Chicago for the first time, was conceived by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a legendary French director and designer who died in 1988.
Restaged here by David Kneuss, one of Ponelle’s assistants, this production capitalizes for the most part on the story’s dramatic intrigue, setting up telling geometric onstage interplay between Idamante’s romantic rivals and effectively arraying the large chorus which portrays the citizens of Crete.
Ponnelle’s 36-year-old scenery inevitably comes off as a bit dated, especially the painted backdrops of ancient city scenes, but the towering re-creation of a columnar, classical-era structure where all the action takes place still impresses.
Perhaps most striking is a massive relief visage of Neptune which slides in and out of view at the back of the stage, an apt physical embodiment of the Roman god who hovers over this story and intervenes at key moments, even speaking in Act 3.
Bizarrely contradicting this historical if somewhat romanticized look was Ponnelle’s odd decision to clothe the characters in costumes from Mozart’s time, complete with assorted powdered wigs, giant bustles and ruffled shirts.
Act 1 seemed a little listless Thursday evening, and it was not until Act 2 that this opera really took off, with some of the evening’s most riveting performances. Here, for example, courtesy of Ilia’s touching aria, “Se il padre perdei,” and the thunderous chorus as the Cretans recoil at the appearance of a sea monster, it was possible to hear the kind of timeless writing that would light up Mozart’s later operas.
Leading the mostly excellent cast was tenor Matthew Polenzani, a house favorite who has appeared 14 times previously on the Lyric stage. It seems sure that the opportunity to cast him in the title role was a key reason the company chose to stage this opera, and the Evanston native turned in one of his most compelling performances ever.
Polenzani could hardly be a better-suited to this role, with his suitably nuanced, expressive range of timbres and phrasings. Offsetting delicate, airy shadings conveying Idomeneo’s pain and vulnerability was ample vocal power and punch to embody the king’s strength and resolution.
Soprano Janai Brugger started a bit slow but soon thoroughly embraced the role of Ilia, daughter of Troy’s King Priam, who was saved by Idamante, Idomeneo’s son, and has secretly fallen in love with him. Possessing a pearly high register and a round, full sound, she capitalized on the character’s Act 2 aria and other key moments in the spotlight.
Princess Elettra, Ilia’s rival for Idamante, is something of a side character, but the ever-dependable soprano, Erin Wall, another Lyric regular, made sure she was not overlooked. Wall reveled in the role, delightfully playing up Elettra’s conniving and haughtiness, and turned the character’s death from a kind of over-the-top manic breakdown into one of the opera’s high points.
Also deserving note were tenor David Portillo, who made the most of the relatively minor role of Arbace, the king’s confidant, and Lyric’s first-rate chorus, which had many chances to shine in this opera.
At the same time, Angela Brower, who often takes trouser roles, proved underwhelming in her Lyric debut as Idamante. The mezzo-soprano brought too much of a boyishness to this role at times, and she never conveyed the stalwart sense of someone about to be crowned the new king.
Music director Andrew Davis was his usual sure hand in the pit, and Lyric’s orchestra, which recently reached a contract settlement with Lyric after a short strike, was back in typical form, giving fine voice to this eloquent score.
“Idomeneo” might not be Mozart as his operatic best, but his genius is nonetheless abundantly on view in this milestone work.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.