Mozart's first mature opera, Idomeneo, takes baroque opera seria about as far as it will go. Commissioned for Munich's carnival in 1781, it's his homage to the work of Gluck and Handel. And Mozart, who was 25 years old when he composed the work and would be dead ten years later, stretches the dry conventions of this most serious musical entertainment to fit his genius.
Even with his novel use of chorus, his evocative tone poems (which evoke a stormy sea, a calm sea, a shimmering sea) and his fluid linking of recitative to aria, Mozart is hindered by seria's creaky structure, which keeps its snooty head pointed heavenward.
Idomeneo, King of Crete (Richard Croft), is shipwrecked as he returns from the Trojan War. Thanking Neptune for saving him, he vows to sacrifice the first person he sees -- who turns out to be his only son, Idamante (Susan Graham). Idomeneo can't bring himself to kill Idamante, so he banishes him without saying why, unaware that two women love Idamante: the captive Trojan princess Ilia (Laura Claycomb) and the fiery Elettra (Alexandra Deshorties).
Idomeneo, Il Trovatore
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA
Idomeneo, through February 13.
Il Trovatore, through February 6. $40-$205.
Neptune is not pleased and sends a terrifying sea monster to devour Crete's unlucky inhabitants. Idomeneo fesses up, and Idamante, after slaying the monster, offers himself to fulfill the king's pledge. Neptune relents, Idomeneo passes the crown to Idamante, and all ends happily for everyone except Elettra, who goes bonkers.
A finer cast would be hard to find. Tenor Croft sings the title role with grace and lyric power. With majestic control, he tosses off the difficult roulades in his Act II bravura aria, "Fuor del Mar," with ease. Mezzo Graham, in the trouser role of Idamante, originally sung by a castrato, has a creamed-sherry voice and a stage presence that Mozart would've loved. Princess Ilia doesn't have much to do except look good, be nice and sing sweetly; Claycomb does this to perfection, with her ethereal soprano wafting upward. The most alive character is Elettra, who's wild-eyed with jealousy and hell-bent on revenge. Deshorties, who scales any heights Mozart throws at her, tears through the fiendish coloratura of "D'Oreste, d'Ajace" with agility to spare, and looks glamorous in those late-18th-century gowns.
Idomeneo is one of Mozart's most descriptive scores, and maestro Patrick Summers leads the orchestra con amore, relishing the seascape's varied colors. Would that this production, sparse and minimal and dry as a bone, had a bit more salt spray in it. Mozart can't do everything.
Giuseppe Verdi's blood-and-guts melodrama Il Trovatore ("The Troubadour") is also playing at HGO. Neither subtle nor stately, this 1853 classic floods the stage with juicy passion. You know almost all the music, as it's been overused in commercials and cartoons and satirized by the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera.
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A master of theater, Verdi cuts right into the meat of the action, writing tunes that stick in your head. He creates unforgettable characters. He grabs and shakes you. You won't fall asleep in this opera.
Manrico (Marcelo Giordani) has been raised by Azucena (Jill Grove), thinking he's a gypsy. In fact, he's the brother of tyrannical Count di Luna (Bruno Caproni). Both men love Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky), but she loves Manrico, which only inflames di Luna. Azucena wants to wreak havoc on the count because, years before, his father burned her mother at the stake as a witch. The truth comes out, but not before Leonora drinks poison, Manrico is executed and the count is told he has killed his own brother. Azucena, now mad, has her revenge.
Other than gangbuster music, what Trovatore has in spades is propulsion. There's nothing extraneous -- it's lean and muscular. What keeps the juggernaut oiled is the extraordinary Azucena, one of the great Verdian mezzo roles. Grove is mesmerizing. We can't take our eyes off her, nor our ears. Her smoky voice has the power of Vesuvius. The other welcome presence is Radvanovsky as put-upon Leonora. Her distinctive soprano, dark with a pronounced vibrato, gives her voice a plangent poignancy. She soars through Verdi's difficult music.
Maestro Summers stirs up emotion and makes the familiar fresh. That can't be said for director Christopher Thomas, who gives us an incomprehensible rainstorm, a phalanx of swords stuck in the stage and a silly slo-mo Rockettes routine for the soldiers. Sometimes directors should be heard and not seen.