This was my second go-round with this DVD. I watched it for the first time over a year ago, and while I stand my some of my previous judgements (the part where Neptune appears and smacks around a damp rubber octopus and the octopus goes thwack is one of those things that ought to happen in opera productions far more often, if only because I find I enjoy writing the phrase “damp rubber octopus” in conjunction with Mozart for some reason) I appreciated this musically and conceptually better than I did the first time around.
The staging has two parts, a bright white box set up around the orchestra in front, and a more open space – a sort of abstracted beach or promontory – in the back. Except for the scene where Idomeneo almost sacrifices his son Idamante, when the priests of Neptune are sitting to one side in the bright box area, the chorus remains in the open area in the back. The more intimate moments of family drama, love triangles, and secret attempts to cheat fate all take place in the box.
This two-sectioned staging gets at something that I had not really thought about before, which is that the opera itself has two layers. If done right, it’s at once an opera seria about a Greek king (Idomeneo) trying to avoid the consequences of a rashly taken vow, complete with rampaging sea monster and a deus ex machina at the end – but (again, if done right) it’s also a domestic drama that is as much about relationships as it is about monsters. There would have been a story here even without the sea monster, although of course there is nothing wrong with sea monsters in operas. (Most people don’t know this, but the original version of Tosca had a sea monster in it. Puccini’s friends convinced him to take it out, because they thought that having Tosca ripped from the parapet at the end by a giant many-suckered tentacle was somehow less realistic than the rest of the plot.* Go figure.)
And the best parts of this performance are those more intimate moments. My favorite sections were Ilia (Ekateraina Siurina) and Idamante’s (Magdalena Kožená) Act III duet “S’io non moro questi accenti” where the two finally admit they are in love, as well as the subsequent quartet “andrò ramingo e solo.” Siurina is really a pleasure to listen to the whole way through. She gives Ilia a sweet-natured dignity that seems entirely appropriate, and Ilia’s first aria, “Padre, germani, addio” has a truly winning combination of precision and feeling – there’s a repeated musical phrase in this aria (I don’t have the score to this opera, unfortunately) and the repetitions of it are done really expressively. Along similar lines, Kožená’s “non ho colpo” leaves you in no doubt that this young man is at cross-purposes with himself half the time in addition to being a little worked up about this Trojan chick who might or might not like him back. (And of course it goes without saying that Anja Harteros’s turn as the unhinged Elettra is reason enough on its own to watch this production. I love how she’s dressed in purple while everyone else is in white, black, and yellow – the color reinforces the fact that her issues seem to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. She has no power to hurt anyone else; no one cares that she’s upset. She’s just there, getting mad, and by the end everyone else has apparently reached a tacit agreement to ignore her and hope she goes away. But the way Harteros tears through this, you kind of wish Mozart had written her an opera of her own.)
*It’s a good thing I proofread this before I posted it, because the first time around I wrote “testicle” for “tentacle.”