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The 'Idomeneo' Hex Continues in San Diego


SAN DIEGO — Mozart's first mature opera, "Idomeneo," has only recently entered into the repertory. In the late '60s, it was so little-known that its first full American staging was a student effort in Berkeley, presented by the music department at the University of California in 1969, in the midst of antiwar rioting. Since then it has made impressive gains. Both Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti have sung the title role at the Metropolitan Opera (the only Mozart role for either tenor), and it has entered into the repertory of most opera houses.

But despite several impressive recordings of Mozart's score, the opera has not had an easy time on the stage. The Met's production was stuffy. A Postmodern production at Salzburg last summer looked striking but was dully performed. Reviewing "Idomeneo" at the Canadian Opera last week, a critic in the Toronto National Post called it "the most stunningly awful professional opera production I've ever seen."

Though still missing from Los Angeles Opera, "Idomeneo" arrived at the San Diego Opera Saturday night. The production--which comes courtesy of San Francisco Opera and was directed by the Bay Area company's outgoing general director, Lotfi Mansouri--did not seem in competition with Toronto in the worst-ever sweepstakes. It is merely bad.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 18, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera review--The review of San Diego Opera's "Idomeneo" in Monday's Calendar incorrectly stated that Los Angeles Opera has not presented this work; in fact, it was performed at L.A. Opera in the 1990-91 season. The review also incorrectly stated that Idomeneo was Placido Domingo's and Luciano Pavarotti's only Mozart role. Both sang other Mozart roles very early in their careers.

There is a reason why "Idomeneo" makes opera companies nervous. When the 25-year-old Mozart wrote it in 1781, the stately, classical opera seria was already a dying genre. But despite its formality, the libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco is well done, and the story of Idomeneus, who upon returning from the Trojan War makes an unfortunate bargain with Neptune, has vivid drama.

John Conklin litters his set design with fragments of Greek statuary. The design is attractive enough, but it is a small set for the large stage of Civic Theatre, and it looks smaller still when populated by characters in Michael Stennett's grandly exaggerated 18th century costumes, which may or may not be meant as parody.


Idomeneo is draped in sheets of kingly red velvet. Ilia, the hostage princess loved by Idomeneo's son, Idamante, looks as though she borrowed her gown from the costume shop of "Der Rosenkavalier." Mansouri extracts from his cast operatic gestures more common in badly acted 19th century Italian melodrama. Edoardo Muller's conducting seconds that approach with a heavy hand.

The cast is curious. Jerry Hadley, who struggled through the title role in Salzburg last summer, dropped out of the San Diego production early enough to allow Scott Wyatt a week of rehearsals. The time might have been better spent by the company looking harder for a replacement.


Ute Selbig was a startling Ilia, a soprano with an extraordinary large voice and focused tone (but not always sure intonation). She was, if anything, too dramatic for her part, but fascinating. Ruxandra Donose, the mezzo-soprano assigned the role of Idamante, was thus consistently overpowered by this Ilia, but still Donose proved, overall, the most considered and convincing singer of the evening.

It was not a kind gesture on Mansouri's part to allow Carol Vaness, as the fiery Elettra who competes with Ilia for Idamante and loses, to appear a camp blend of Maria Callas and Joan Crawford. It was not kind accompaniment on Muller's to give her so little support.

The smaller roles were sung inadequately. The chorus sounded shrill and looked, in its processionals and its cowering, silly. Under the circumstances, cutting the ballet at the end was a wise decision. Now it is up to Los Angeles Opera, or perhaps Opera Pacific, to remove the curse on "Idomeneo." It is a chance worth taking.


"Idomeneo" repeats Tuesday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. $33-$92, Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego. (619) 232-7636.

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