Before Mozart reinvented opera with the earthy, topical “The Marriage of Figaro,” the art form consisted largely of tales of gods and goddesses. These mythological fables were called opera seria (serious operas). Just days after his 25th birthday in 1781, Mozart saw the premiere of what is considered his first true operatic masterpiece, an opera seria entitled “Idomeneo, King of Crete.”
A new production of this relative rarity seemed an odd choice for the opening night of Milan’s legendary Teatro alla Scala, one of international society’s most glamorous events.
For the first time in 19 years, the season opener was not led by superstar conductor Riccardo Muti, who had served as the house’s musical director. Muti resigned in April in the face of tense relations with La Scala’s orchestra and unions and accusations that he had turned the theater into his personal fiefdom.
Frenchman Stephane Lissner was named artistic director shortly after Muti’s resignation, becoming the first non-Italian in more than two centuries to run the company.
With only a few months to go before opening night, most of opera’s most famous names were already booked. Lissner cast his premiere with young, largely unknown talent from around the globe (with only one Italian in a leading role), brought in 29-year-old British conductor Daniel Harding and tapped his old friend and colleague Luc Bondy to direct “Idomeneo,” selected in celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday in January.
With the help of Erich Wonder’s minimalist sets of sand dunes and painted backdrops of waves lapping or raging, Bondy forces the story — Idomeneo’s refusal of the gods’ order to sacrifice his son, Idamante, in obeisance for saving his life — far downstage, making absorbing, intimate drama from an abstruse tale.
When the gods toss in a sea monster to contradict Idomeneo’s diversions, Bondy and Wonder conjure images of the 2004 tsunami: The chorus rushes in frenzy, confusion and fear in imagery startlingly familiar from CNN. In act three, bodies are laid out for identification as trash and papers blow along the shore. When an oracle prevents the filicide by ordering Idomeneo’s abdication, a monolith shoots out of the sand, not unlike that in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Against Idamante’s joyous coronation, Bondy brings in another storm: No matter what you do to appease your gods, they are never satisfied.
Harding breaks with tradition and Muti’s 21st-century approach to opera by using the tiny orchestra Mozart calls for in the original score and importing 18th-century horns and timpani for authenticity. His performance is brisk and intense, providing superb support for his singers and emphasizing Mozart’s wild intervals and chilling harmonics.
In a career-defining perf as Idomeneo, Australian tenor Steve Davislim shows a dusky, meltingly gorgeous voice; a natural, endearing stage presence; and virtuoso technique. Idomeneo’s act-two aria “Furo del mar” is so dementedly difficult that neither Domingo nor Pavarotti attempted its original version when performing the role. (Mozart wisely provided a dumbed-down alternate.) Davislim thrillingly sails over the intended treacherous streams of coloratura with breath to spare and delivers his final aria with eloquent radiance.
Emma Bell unleashes a huge voice with slicing top notes as Elektra, a rival from the House of Atrius for Idamante’s affections, whose wild, show-stopping vengeance aria veers into demented laughter.
Offering high-fives after liberating Trojan prisoners, Monica Bacelli is a coltish, sensuous-voiced Idamante. Camilla Tilling’s sweet, bell-like soprano supplies moments of unearthly beauty as Ilia, Idamante’s beloved.
This triumphal “Idomeneo” registers a signal that big changes are in order for Italy’s premier opera house. So far, Lissner’s risks have paid off bigtime.