The ancient Greeks loved their infanticide. The Met paired their season opener Medea with Mozart’s Idomeneo, though a deus ex machina provides a happy ending to Mozart’s characters. Though Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production premiered in 1982, it looks as if it could have come straight from the 1781 premiere. The imposing set remains attractive, a gigantic Greek temple framing sepia-toned drawings that efficiently drop down from the flies. But there’s little in the way of character development, and the few bits of Ponnelle’s direction that remain – Elettra doing a full aerobic stretch before her opening aria, the chorus waving their arms to simulate a storm, the giant blinking statue of Neptune – elicited embarrassed laughter. It’s high time for a new production, especially when the musical values are as good as this.

Idomeneo at the Met
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Mozart’s first mature opera sees him experimenting with form and orchestration, with creative use of woodwind and brass colours. In a long-overdue Met debut, Manfred Honeck drew energy and clarity from his orchestra. Hard timpani sticks, vigorous rhythmic attack and tart woodwind colours brought period flavour, particularly effective in the violent thrashings of the storm music. Quieter moments were given a lovely sense of repose, Honeck daring the strings to play ever softer in the hushed opening of Act 3. If there were a few coordination problems between the stage and pit, those will surely be ironed out through the run. 

Michael Spyres (Idomeneo) and Kate Lindsey (Idamante)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

The Met assembled a remarkable cast of singers for this revival. Anyone who’s heard Michael Spyres’ “Fuor del mar” will recognise that his is a voice uniquely suited to the role, hurtling through the coloratura with astonishing dexterity. Spyres’ wide-ranging repertoire includes everything from Rossini and Handel to Wagner, and it’s certainly a hefty voice that he is able to shade beautifully to convey nobility, anger, or vulnerability as needed. Dramatically, he’s not helped by Ponnelle’s production, conveying little of the character’s anguish, but when you can sing “Fuor del mar” like that, it’s drama enough. 

As his son Idamante, mezzo Kate Lindsey looked stunning in her powdered wig and nicely charted the character’s development from prince to king. Lindsey phrased elegantly, but too often her lyric mezzo sounded occluded in the vast hall of the Met. Similarly, Paolo Fanale’s reedy tenor made little impact as Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace, though he dispatched the treacherous coloratura of his aria with enviable ease. Meanwhile, Issachah Savage made the most of his small role as the High Priest, bringing clarion tone and terrifying authority to the character’s proclamations.

Michael Spyres (Idomeneo) and Ying Fang (Ilia)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

But the evening was all about the sopranos. The captive Trojan princess Ilia opens the first and third acts, and Ying Fang’s pearly soprano set the tone exquisitely. Fang’s lyric soprano projects beautifully and rides the ensembles with ease, every run and trill clear as a bell. Ilia doesn’t do very much dramatically, but Fang infused her sound with a suitable melancholy without ever sliding into droopiness – a difficult balance indeed. 

Federica Lombardi (Elettra)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Federica Lombardi was unconventional casting as Elettra, with a purity of tone that rivals Fang’s – when she exquisitely floats the treacherous high triplets of “Idol mio”, you fully believe that this is a young woman in love. But of course, she’s more fun when she’s bad, and Lombardi roars, whispers, and spits the recitatives out as only a native speaker can. She's the dramatic anchor of the cast, even though Ponnelle has her gyrating around the stage like a deranged drag queen. She launches into “D’Oreste d’Aiace” with such ferocity that you worry that she’ll never make it to the end, but she nails the descending staccati and caps it with a blazing high C. Proof that opera seria can be utterly thrilling, even when saddled with a production older than most of the cast.