By Tom Huizenga
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 5, 2006
Opera Lafayette's impressive production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" got this year's Washington Early Music Festival off to a grand start over the weekend at the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland.
Conductor and founder Ryan Brown's resourceful little opera company continues to rise to artistic heights normally associated only with big-budget ones. Brown's energized period-instrument orchestra, cast and chorus, in collaboration with the New York Baroque Dance Company, proved that one of Mozart's most lengthy and least understood operas could be as sparkling and musically rewarding as "The Marriage of Figaro" or "Don Giovanni."
For financial reasons, Brown hasn't fully staged an opera yet (someone please drop a load of money on him!). But even in concert form, with elegant dances, this "Idomeneo" came alive with more drama and intensity than you're likely to find in any formal opera house.
When the opera was commissioned in 1780, Mozart was locked into composing "Idomeneo" in the traditional opera seria format. With its preference for well-worn mythological plotlines and bravura arias, leaving ample time for applause, opera seria was old-fashioned.
Mozart broke through the dramatic barriers.
The fascinating letters he wrote to his father while composing "Idomeneo" show the 24-year-old Mozart tightening the text, even chopping music, always propelling the drama forward. It also helped that Mozart was writing for a crack orchestra -- hailed at the time as "an army of generals," able to execute his innovative writing for winds and luminous vocal accompaniment.
Brown's cast was finely balanced in Friday's performance. Tenor Robert Breault was a smooth-voiced Idomeneo, perhaps a little too calm at times considering his predicament. Heading home from the Trojan War, Idomeneo makes a pact with Neptune. If he survives the storm, he'll sacrifice the first person he meets.
That person would be his son, Idamante. In a thrilling, intelligent performance in the trouser role, Stephanie Houtzeel filled her deep, azure mezzo-soprano with Idamante's sorrow, longing and love for Ilia, an exiled Trojan princess. Kirsten Blaise's silvery, lyric soprano has a hint of cream, and her Ilia sounded especially radiant in "Se il padre," with Mozart's winds wafting between her phrases.
Electra is Ilia's rival, spending much of the opera in a snit about not getting tight with Idamante. Soprano Millicent Scarlett had glints of steel in her voice, making Electra's rants intimidating.
Smaller roles were also strongly cast, including Tony Boutté as Idomeneo's lyrical confidant Arbace; Robert Baker, an appropriately stentorian High Priest; and François Loup (standing in the choir loft) as a voice literally from on high.
The Early Music Festival continues through June 25 at various venues. For information visithttp://www.earlymusicdc.org.