The San Francisco Opera's production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" is a beautiful staging that is set in the 18th century. The view we get of Crete has nothing to do with reality, but rather, the vision of the place as imagined in Mozart's time.
We open in a room enclosed with marble walls. It's close, and there are broken mouldings on the walls. Troy has fallen and the Trojan Princess Ilia, King Priam's daughter, as been taken prisoner. Manacled, she sings of her love for Idamante, the son of King Idomeneo who conquered her homeland. In the King's absence, Idamante is ruler of his father's land. The Chorus enters as Trojan prisoners, dressed in gray sack cloth, and Idamante frees them. Elettra, Agamemnon's daughter, has been living in Crete since the murder of her mother Clytemnesta. She's in a black dress with gold trim, and venomously objects to the freeing of the Trojans. When Arbace tells Idamante that his father's ship has been lost at sea, the wall parts at the back and we have a beautiful expanse of sea with islands. It looks like John Conklin drove down Highway 1 from Carmel to Santa Barbara for his seascapes. There are various configurations of islands and rocks jutting out of the sea. Idomeneo's ship wrecks on the islands. Big jagged rocks close in, with broken ships in the foreground. When he's on his throne after meeting Idamante, the islands are smaller and farther out, like off the Santa Barbara coast, with a few jutting rocks like around San Simeon on Morrow Bay. Throughout they are intimidating or friendly, as the action dictates.
"Idomeneo" is one of the most lyrical of Mozart's operas, and Act 2 is especially so. After Idomeneo recounts to Arbace his pledge to Neptune, we have a profusion of delicious arias and duets. Barbara Bonney is a radiantly sweet voiced Ilia, as she rejoices on her good fortune to Idomeneo. He's apprehensive. He thinks she's in love with his son. If so, Neptune will have three victims, Idomeneo, Idamante, and Ilia.
Carol Vaness as Elettra also sings of bliss. It's a passionately sharp edged joy of her conquest of her rival. She's going to get Idamante, and he will learn to love her when he's away from Ilia. There's nothing soft and loving about it, but rather it's hard and calculated. The backdrop rolls away and a big ship appears at the background. The Chorus fills the stage. Elettra sings of the calm the sea brings to our hearts. Idamante is about to set sail with Elettra, and another storm sets in. The ship's sails turn red, smoke rises and the people flee. Lightning flashes as a giant blood red monster with four horse heads rises from the sea to the top of the stage, filling it from bottom to top. A red cloth is pulled to the front and envelopes Idomeneo, as the curtain falls on Act 2.
Act 3 opens with a big marble altar against a serene sea. Ilia sings a sweet aria of her unrequited love for Idamante. He will never find another love as true as hers. When he appears and she tells him, she reproaches herself for betraying her Trojan family. Idomeneo and Elettra overhear, and all are miserable in their quartet.
Neptune's priests appear with broken blood red pillars against the sea. His monster is wreaking destruction on Crete. The High Priest saw the monster devour a thousand people. The people appeal to Idomeneo to tell of the one who must be sacrificed to save them. When Idamante enters after slaying the monster, it is revealed that he must die. Ilia rushes in to die with him, and the rock in the sea glows, as the amplified voice of the Oracle decrees that love has overcome him and he is appeased.
Elettra is crushed. She's back in the marble prison as the walls come together to close her in. The light from below casts her shadow higher and higher as she sings of her defeat. Finally with a thrust upward, her extended hand reaches the very top of the stage. Idomeneo relinquishes his throne and most live happily.
This is an outstanding cast led by Carol Vaness as the darkly sinister Elettra, and the beautifully sweet Barbara Bonney as Ilia. Gosta Winbergh is a strong steady Idomeneo. Vassilina Kasarova is a strong Idamante in the trouser role. I generally don't like to see cross gender roles, especially when the subjects are Greek Kings and warriors. Fortunately here the staging helped as, for the most part, when she was isolated on stage with someone bigger than her, which included most of the cast, she was above them on the inclined stage. That helped, but I would rather have seen the role cast as a tenor like in Mozart's revision. Donald Runnicles gave a tight and exciting reading to the score as he led the superb playing of the orchestra.
This is only the third time San Francisco Opera has done "Idomeneo," but it has a very significant history. It opened on October 7, 1989. The fourth performance fell on October 17th, the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake, so it was cancelled. It resumed for the final performances. While conducting, terminally ill Music Director Sir John Prichard said Mozart was keeping him alive. The morning after the last performance he went into a coma from which he never woke up. Mozart's "Idomeneo" continues at The San Francisco Opera December 1st , 5th, and 11th so, we shall see.