Monday, September 12, 2011

Just Seen: Mozart's Idomeneo

First-nighting a live performance is always a thrill, and it's something I haven't done in quite a while. On Saturday, we had the honor and pleasure of attending the opening night of Opera San Jose's 2011-2012 season at the California Theater. Our attendance of this performance was all due to an incredibly generous gesture by Amanda, a very talented opera singer and member of Opera San Jose's chorus.

For those not from the Bay Area, one would get the impression that Opera San Jose is a sort of small-town affair. It's not: San Jose is a larger city by population than San Francisco or Oakland, and still-flowing Silicon Valley money allows for upper-crust activities such as supporting opera. The problem is one of comparison: 40 miles north of the California Theater sits the War Memorial Opera House, home of the San Francisco Opera-- second only to New York's Met in size. There was nothing second-rate about Saturday's performance: it was a $3 million plus production, backed by Packard family money.

The opera was Mozart's Idomeneo, an Italian-language opera first performed in 1781. Structurally, it's a classic 18th century Opera Seria, full of rich emotional performances and virtuosic singing. And like all good operas, this one was not short on spectacle: Excellent lighting, wonderful costumes and some awe-inspiring sets-- the temple set in act III is three stories tall, eliciting gasps from the audience (I have no idea how they moved it in and out). Archaeologists were consulted on costume and set design, which strongly evoked Mycenian-era Crete.

And the lush orchestral score: Mozart, 'nuff said.

If you're gonna attend a season-opening performance that lasts for nearly three hours and forty-five minutes, you're gonna come out with quite a range of impressions:

• I've always maintained that opera is the ancestor of the motion picture, and Idomeneo was no exception, full of dramatic scenery, emotional exposition, and extras. What I didn't expect is a story that reminded me of a modern romantic comedy. It's based on some of the characters from Homer's Iliad (which makes the story about 3000 years old, well into public domain). In brief, Idomeneo, King of Crete, his son Idamante, his Trojan prisoner/ son's love interest Ilia, and the jealous princess Electra all carry big important secrets. At one point all four characters sing out on how these secrets are making all of them terribly unhappy-- but it does not occur to anybody to disclose these secrets. It's not at all different from a contemporary rom-com where the main character has constructed some elaborate fantasy to woo the girl, and everything would be solved by a short conversation. Then again, I'll wager 230 years ago such hoary plot contrivances were at least fresh.

• Another story element has changed quite a bit from then to now: I'd call it the Homeric element. The prime mover of the story-- the character who basically makes everything happen-- is the god Neptune, a supernatural being. He causes the initial crisis for King Idomeneo at the start, extends it in act II with the introduction of a ravaging monster, then wraps things up nicely in act III. (Neptune shows up with the wordless appearance of a buff actor with a big white beard and a crown: his disembodied voice resolves all the conflicts at the end.) In other words, Deus Ex Machina is not just used to wrap up the plot: it IS the plot. But if you are at all familiar with the Iliad it's pretty clear that Homer had no problem telling a story driven by divine intervention-- or it's evidence of bicameral mentality 3000 years ago.

• Our friend Amanda was not hard to spot in the chorus: Attractive and quite tall, she managed to gain some impressively central stage positions during the arias, standing out in a large chorus. It helped that we had excellent seats in the orchestra. So thanks again.

• In general, it was a delightfully civilized evening of culture. One of the things I really like about these venues is enjoying a sophisticated adult beverage during the intermission. To save time, the bar lets you pre-order your drinks before the first curtain, and you pick them up according to number later. It was perhaps a rude reminder of the moral decline in modern society that when we went to collect our Manhattans at the first interval that we discovered someone had stolen them. The folks at the bar were nice enough re-pour us new ones-- a kind act of non-divine intervention.

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