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OPERA REVIEW

Students Shine in ‘Idomeneo’

But Faculty Inadequate in BU’s Production of Mozart’s Comic Opera

By Jonathan E.D. Richmond
ADVISORY BOARD

Idomeneo

Boston University Opera Institute

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Abbot Giambattista Varresco

Directed by Sharon Daniels

Conducted by William Lumpkin

Boston University Theatre, Mainstage

Apr. 18, 19, 21, 7:30 p.m.; Apr. 21, 5:00 p.m.

The program for the Boston University Opera Institute’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo includes extensive biographical information on faculty members involved, but tells us nothing about the student performers. This vanity is especially unfortunate since the students demonstrated substantial potential, while the teaching and direction provided by faculty appeared to be quite inadequate.

Idomeneo predates Mozart’s great comic operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and is a striking dramatic work which both looks back to the world of Gluck and projects a modernity that Mozart was to never revisit. Mozart was familiar with Gluck’s music, and the unbroken sequence of Idomeneo’s musical numbers follows Gluck’s practice, in the French tradition, and provides for a continuous dramatic tension unrestrained by the Italian practice of breaking the flow with alternating arias and recitatives. Idomeneo’s great storm scene appears to be patterned after the one in Gluck’s IphigÉnie en Tauride, and the chorus also takes a central role, as in Gluck opera. The dramatic effect is intense, and at times both raw and jarring, with the emotional impact going well beyond the conventions of Mozart’s time. The key to delivering that impact is an understanding that the musical instruments are as much characters as the singers on stage. It is their sound that tells us what is going on in the hearts of the protagonists playing out the great Greek tragedy Mozart relates, a tale of a foolish father, Idomeneo, who promises to sacrifice the first human he encounters in return for a safe return home, and who sees first his son, Idamante.

Using period instruments is extremely helpful at getting to the soul of Idomeneo’s musical drama. The instruments of Mozart’s time produced raw sounds of greater clarity and directness than the smooth sonorities of the modern instruments of today’s mainstream orchestras. The legatos of the nineteenth century had little place in the eighteenth, while the ability to provide detailed coloration was of far greater significance. Idomeneo can be produced effectively with modern instruments, nonetheless, if the performance is informed by the practice of Mozart’s time.

Such knowledge was clearly lacking in the BU production, where orchestral sound had blurry edges, and it was often impossible to distinguish individual instruments. Mozart often uses a wind instrument to make a striking dramatic statement about the state of mind or heart of a singer in mid-aria. If the sound of that instrument cannot be heard distinctly, the effect is lost. Strings should often sound abrasive, conveying the power of the ocean that is never distant from the action of the opera, but this effect was lost because the strings had apparently not been taught the appropriate bowing technique. Much of the playing was of a high standard but the conductor, William Lumpkin, seemed to have little understanding of what the musical world of Idomeneo was about. Not only should the orchestra have been prepared technically, but should have been made to connect actively with the drama on stage -- their sounds drive the audience’s understanding of the action, so they must be a part of it. Such an engagement was almost entirely lacking.

Musically, the great storm made for the poorest scene of all. The power of clashing waves should dominate, and the audience should feel a great evil monster depicted by a dissonant-sounding piccolo, rising from the waves. The piccolo could hardly be heard, and the string sound was muddled. Worst of all, crude sound effects were used to convey the power of the storm, but had an impact that was dissipated because the immense psychological impact Mozart intended to convey must come entirely from the music.

There was one star performance from the singers (who made up the second of two casts who sang in this production). Georgia Pickett really knew what Elettra was about. Elettra is in love with Idamante, who in turn loves Ilia. Pickett brought brilliant characterization to depict Elettra’s hopeless jealousy. Her performance of the aria, “Tutte nel cor vi sento,” showed enormous stature, as Elettra’s lovesick sighing and viperous rage were both conveyed in a display of great control. Showing both eloquence and piquancy, Pickett showed she had a commanding stage presence as well.

Amy Feather sang adequately as Ilia, but projected a shallow personality. Giavanna Kersulis did have a few winning moments as Idamante, and much of her singing was fluent, but her performance was too often dull in an unschooled manner that suggested poor preparation by BU faculty rather than of a lack of potential.

Arturo ChacÓn-Cruz, however, was way off the mark as Idomeneo. His singing was in a high-powered bel canto style inappropriate to this opera, where intimate coloration is so much more important to bringing the internal world of Mozart’s music to life than the misplaced brute power ChacÓn-Cruz produced. His acting was thoroughly wooden, too.

The chorus clearly included some great singers but, like the solo singers and musicians, appeared to be inadequately prepared either musically or dramatically, and their performance had little impact.

Sharon Daniels’ direction lacked imagination. There were a lot of cliched gestures and random whirling around, but little that was either graceful or telling. In particular, little connection was made between music and action. Luckily, the sacrifice scene did come together better than the rest of the performance.

Finally, there was some communication of the emotional intensity that should run throughout the opera. But too much of the rest of the evening was lost in weak direction, and the feeling at the end was one of a lost opportunity. BU’s students seem to be extremely talented -- it’s the faculty that needs to do its homework.