Idomeneo, Mozart’s opera seria, returned to the Met after a decade, with James Levine on the podium, in a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle that he inaugurated in 1982. Ponnelle’s set consists of an open stage with steps in the center leading to the background framed by square arches. The scene changes are efficient, with a set of screens lowered and raised in the back. A large face of Neptune with its hollow eyes and open mouth is most prominent, but other images include the seashore and the palace, all in subdued light brown hues. The costumes run the gamut; Trojan princess Ilia is first dressed in a flowing long gown with pleated sleeves. Later she is changed to a dress more reminiscent of the Baroque period, complete with a wig. In the second half she returns in her original dress. Other characters are dressed in the Baroque style; Greek princess Elettra wears the most elaborate dress and jewels, with a huge wide skirt.

The work is a synthesis of the young Mozart’s genius as he sought to establish a new style of opera while paying homage to tradition. Recitatives are taken up by the orchestra, arias are elaborate and demanding. There are exquisite quintets and quartets. Orchestration is complex, with woodwinds, horn and trumpets given a prominent role. James Levine and his orchestra were on splendid form. The overture began with a brisk and energetic tempo, but care was taken to showcase the flowing melodies as well as the distinct harmonies and counterpoints. Throughout the evening, the orchestra shone with sumptuous strings, thrilling woodwinds, and prominent brass; all played the almost symphonic music with both care and abandon.

The soloists got off to a slow start, perhaps due to opening night jitters. Nadine Sierra’s youthful lyrical soprano fits the role of captive princess Ilia, but her high notes tended to spread in her first aria “Quando avian fine omni”, and the following “Padre, germani, addio!”. She settled down in subsequent acts, and her Act 2 aria “Se il padre perdei” displayed good legato and thrilling ornamentation. Alice Coote, as Idomeneo’s son and Ilia’s love interest Idamante, had a good command of the role’s demands but one wished for more warmth in her voice. As the lyrical lines moved upwards, her voice did not open out and blossom. As she warmed up, however, Ms Coote’s voice gained strength as well as flexibility, and her singing with her fellow performers, in her duet with Ms Sierra in particular, was noteworthy in its polish and sophistication.

Versatile tenor Matthew Polenzani was an exemplary Idomeneo with his smooth, clear and lyrical voice and calm but authoritative stage presence. He easily negotiated the long lines of Mozart’s aria, and although some coloratura passages presented problems, Idomeneo’s big Act 2 aria “Fuor del mar” was thrilling and passionate. Replacing an indisposed Alan Opie, Gregory Schmidt sang Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace with solid technique and penetrating voice. Noah Baetge made the most of his brief appearance as High Priest, and Eric Owens was a menacing but invisible Voice of Nepture. 

One of Mozart’s genius in this “anything goes” opera is the character of Elettra, an unhinged and unconventional heroine of the opera of his time. Elsa van den Heever, another versatile singer, was splendid in Elettra’s first act aria “Tutte nel cor vi sento”.  Ms van den Heever has the ability to hit a note right in the middle, and in high notes this technique proved to be of particular merit. She embodied the hopeful but frustrated and anxious character. Her Act 3 mad scene was a showstopper, groaning and flinging her arms and high notes while maintaining her basic poise as a Greek princess. It was not as demented a portrayal as expected, but it was all the more interesting to see a performer deliberately portray a mad character while maintaining perfect vocal control. It was a class act.

The magnificent Met Chorus was almost ubiquitous in the crucial turning points of the opera, in the storm, the march, the monster scene, and the final happy resolution. They acted as Greek Chorus to comment and explain the plot and the characters’ motives and emotions. In the end, of course, it was the young Mozart and his mature insight into human nature that leaves one breathless as the young couple is hailed as new leaders of Crete, with Idomeneo exiting the stage as the old order is ushered out.