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OPERA REVIEW : Meddling With Mozart : Gospel of 'Idomeneo' According to Sendak and Corsaro

September 27, 1990|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Here we go again.

The wonders of a great opera are compromised by gimmickry. A meddlesome director and designer refuse to trust the composer. The procedure has become all too familiar.

In some instances, re-creational modernists manage to violate the letter of the original law, yet still illuminate the spirit. That's terrific.

Other second-guessers are so intent on imposing their own irrelevant vision on the piece at hand that they distort or even destroy the intended dramatic impulses. They move against the music. That's irksome.

It becomes especially irksome when the music is sensitively conducted, exquisitely sung and elegantly played. Sublime sound can go only so far to outweigh ridiculous sight.

Take, for sad example, Mozart's "Idomeneo" as staged by Frank Corsaro, illustrated by Maurice Sendak and conducted by Roderick Brydon for the Music Center Opera on Tuesday.

If our records are accurate, Los Angeles had never before seen a major staging of the lofty opera seria (USC mustered a modest workshop version in 1966). Los Angeles still hasn't seen a faithful representation of this stylized exploration of jealousy, devotion, heroism and renunciation on the island of Crete in the wake of the Trojan War.

"Idomeneo," written in 1781 when Mozart had reached the ripe old age of 25, isn't easy. It is long, slow and irrevocably bound to certain period conventions. The plot, for all its convolutions, is static. The characters are stereotypes. The musical structure relies on set formulas. Luckily, Mozart's inspiration transcended any potential liabilities.

One wouldn't have guessed that at the Music Center. Corsaro decided that the idiom needed to be juiced up. Forget classic nobility. Let's have a psychosexual charade.

Idomeneo, the king of Crete, was really Leopold Mozart, the composer's overbearing father. That was Corsaro's irrelevant concept. Idamante, the troubled prince, was really Mozart himself. The opera, we were told, really concerns the complex love-hate relationship between the paternal despot and the youthful pretender to his aesthetic throne.

Calling Dr. Freud. And where are you, Peter Shaffer, when we don't need you?

Everyone loves Maurice Sendak. Everyone loves his cuddly shaggy dogs, his plump cherubs, his naughty boys, his charming monsters. He is a master of dark-edged humor, and his magical images cast their spell far beyond children's books. With "Idomeneo," however, he seems to have strayed into the wrong scenic milieu.

Reinforcing Corsaro's dubious historical concept, he plays the beginning and the end in young Mozart's study. There's the young genius in a caricature of a famous portrait on the wall. There's the boy himself, in the same powdered wig and breeches, seated at the keyboard.

Quiet. He's composing something. Listen. We think it's "Idomeneo." Gosh.

Enter Papa Leopold, in similar Baroque attire. He scorns the kid's creative effort. Perhaps he's jealous. No matter. We're off, for a while, to ancient Crete. Sendak's Crete is a jumbled jungle of ungainly flats and drops, most of which struggle in vain to avoid looking comical at worst, whimsical at best.

Sendak's costumes--very unflattering to the women in the cast--assign vague fairy-tale antiquity to the non-"historical" participants. But King Idomeneo remains the courtly Leopold Mozart throughout, and Idamante never forswears the Baroque trappings of Amadeus. The result trivializes the mythology. It also looks silly.

The Corsaro/Sendak madness does reflect a method, however obscure and dubious that method may be. Too bad the management of the Music Center Opera didn't deem an explanatory essay worthwhile. The audience deserves a little enlightenment.

In many ways, this "Idomeneo" is best appreciated with eyes closed.

Brydon, who has replaced the originally scheduled Christof Perick, conducts with tender, lyrical, reasonably stylish care. He accompanies his singers with obvious compassion but never slights emotional impetus. In the process, he elicits elegant support from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, obviously in its element here.

He also has made some wise editorial decisions, relying on a nearly complete version of the Munich edition of 1781. The only major cuts--both pardonable--remove Arbace's second aria and the rather mechanical final ballet of celebration.

Mozart wrote the role of Idamante for castrato, a vocal phenomenon now gratefully extinct. Some companies opt for a tenor, but the Los Angeles forces chose a mezzo-soprano of the Cherubino mold and thus sustained appropriate timbral contrasts.

The cast functioned as an ensemble of virtuosos. Siegfried Jerusalem, the most celebrated Wagnerian tenor of the day, brought manly dignity, ample agility, dynamic finesse and burnished tone--some passing pitch problems notwithstanding--to the title role. Susan Quittmeyer complemented him--and Corsaro's directorial conceit too--as an Idamante of tremendous suavity and sensitivity. She has become a trouser-role specialist with few peers.

Pamela Coburn looked a bit robust for the sweet-ingenue platitudes of Ilia, but she sang with limpid, angelic tone that proved especially compelling in her great aria, "Zeffiretti, lusinghieri."

Although her soprano isn't as dark or as heavy as cliche might have it in this evil role, Christine Weidinger swept all before her with an Elettra of galvanizing passion and stunning vocal bravura. She even managed those hysterical descending cackles of the mad scene, "D'Oreste e d'Aiace," with easy and accurate aplomb. That claim cannot be made for many a more celebrated interpreter of the role.

The secondary roles were in good hands. Jonathan Mack coped crisply, even sweetly, with the demanding but unrewarding duties of Arbace. When he wasn't straining for high notes, John Atkins sang incisively as the High Priest. Louis Lebherz boomed imposingly as the Voice of Neptune.

The performance began at 7:30 and ended after 11. The hours crept on apace.

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