Ten years have passed since Idomeneo, rè di Creta, Mozart’s first mature opera, was last performed at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s also a decade since René Jacobs, one of the most celebrated early music specialists, conducted in New York. Fortunately, both of these incredibly long hiatuses in the city’s musical life came simultaneously to an end when, under the auspices of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Jacobs conducted the joint forces of the Freiburger Barockorchester, the Arnold Schoenberg choir, and a group of outstanding soloists in an concert performance of Mozart’s opera seria at Alice Tully Hall.

Rene Jacobs © Josep Molina
Rene Jacobs
© Josep Molina

Idomeneo has always been in the shadow of the later Da Ponte operas. It is only in the last half a century that the public has begun to understand the importance of this pivotal point in the composer’s career, not only foreshadowing his own later masterpieces, but also the Romantic impulses we hear in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Combining characteristics of the Italian opera seria and those of the French tragédie lyrique, Mozart practically created a new musical form. While apparently conserving old musical conventions, he imbued them with such energy that they burst open. Changes in the typical opera seria subject are also evident. Giambattista Varesco, Mozart’s oft-maligned librettist, transformed the world of vengeful ancient gods and puppet-like manipulated humans into one where individuals act according to their own moral principles. For Mozart and Varesco, fate can be tamed by repentance and self-sacrifice can bring about forgiveness.

At a time when singers were used to basking in adulatory applause after each aria, the composer, with his keen dramatic sense, forced the music to flow from one number to the next, form an aria to the following chorus, from a recitativo accompagnato to a lyrical arioso. Helped by the irreproachable playing of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, led by Petra Müllejans, Jacobs emphasized these wonderful transitional moments, and generally, the changes in pace and volume brought the text alive. By paying careful attention to every detail and constantly keeping in mind the dramatic architectural arches, the conductor moved the performance along with an extraordinary focus. On the one hand, he underlined the innovative use of brass or the quality of the continuo − especially cello − accompaniment in the recitatives. On the other, Jacobs stressed the intrinsic energy in the orchestration for such numbers as "Qual nuovo terrore", describing the second act apparition of a sea monster, superbly conveyed by members of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.

Arnold Schoenberg Choir © Rudi Handl
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
© Rudi Handl

Overall, it was a performance marked by an extraordinary level of co-ordination between all of the musicians. Amazingly, the soloists never had to look back to the conductor for a cue, not even during the third act quartet when the main characters, in different positions on the stage sing of their conflicting emotions.

From the very first scene, when Ilia, the daughter of the defeated King Priam of Troy, mourns the death of her father and ponders on her confused love for Idamante, one can sense in the aria Idomeneo’s son in "Padre, germani, addio" the profound tragic tone of this opera, despite its prescribed happy ending. With her light and sweet soprano voice, Sophie Karthäuser was ideally cast in this role. She sang her famous third act aria "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" with gracious ease, urging the wind to carry her message of love. In the title role, British tenor Jeremy Ovenden, expressed the vulnerability and indecisiveness of the character. This is not the vanquisher of Trojan forces but someone soon to be displaced as a ruler. His "Fuor de mar" was well-suited for the smaller space of the Alice Tully Hall and a reduced orchestral ensemble.

Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) © Luca Sage
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
© Luca Sage

The performance was pretty much stolen by the stunning mezzo Gaëlle Arquez. She splendidly controlled her lustrous instrument in depicting the transformation of the confused prince Idamante from an ardent and impulsive to a regal detachment. The intense soprano Alex Penda sang the hysterical leaps and furious rage with abandon as the spurned Greek princess Elettra. She displayed riveting coloratura in the first act's "Tutte nel cor vi sento furie del cupo averno" (I can feel you all in my heart, furies of the dark hell) and in her final descent into madness. As Arbace tenor Julien Behr was convincing and steadfast in his "Se cola ne’ fatti è scritto" (If it’s written in the destiny). Nicolas Rivenq was a little shaky as the High Priest of Neptune, whilst Christ Seidl was very much The Voice, so to speak.

New Yorkers will not have to wait too long for the next performance of Idomeneo. James Levine will revive the old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production at the Metropolitan Opera House next spring. However, one hopes that we will not have to wait another decade to enjoy such an illuminating performance conducted by Maestro Jacobs.

*****