In my continuing series on Metropolitan Opera shows projected Live in HD to movie theaters, I have for you my review of yesterday’s matinee. This show, Mozart’s great opera Idomeneo, was a delicious treat. It featured a team of very strong soloists and an omnipresent chorus. It is somewhat unusual in a Mozart opera for the chorus to be such an integral “character” in the action. And there were times, especially in Act III when I could have sworn that I was watching a Verdi opera! Well, this is a Greek tragedy after all, hence the importance of the “Greek chorus”. Not only is the chorus on the stage most of the time, but the staging is such that the leads are also frequently on the stage, even when it’s not their turn to sing. They lurk, always watching the others, always listening, absorbing information. The effect is that of a social network: All of these people are constantly linked to each other, their fates completely intertwined.
Craziness Becomes Elektra
The action takes place on the island of Crete, a large island in the Mediterranean Sea. The economy and in fact the very existence of the Greek people who live on this island is connected with the sea. The safety of their ships and their people depends on the good will of the God Neptune. At any moment Neptune can destroy their livelihoods by throwing a tantrum, causing huge storms to wreck their ships. He can even attack them on land by dispatching rampaging sea monsters to gobble them up. Something that seems to happen all too frequently in Greek mythology.
The God’s power is reinforced by the set, which features a giant Neptune face, maw open, as a constant backdrop to the action. I know, I know, it’s a bit of an overkill. Yeah, we get it: Neptune rules this island! But at least it’s visually effective. Unlike that stupid giant clock the Met is using in their current production of “La Traviata”. But the less said about that the better — I’m talking about the set not the singers, of course, who are wonderful, as always — but I digress…
The year is approximately 1300 BC give or take a century or two. It is the late Bronze Age. The societies of the Mediterranean are slowly recovering from the 10-year Trojan War. The first real “World War”. This brutal conflict destroyed almost everyone who participated. Greek and Roman legends tell us that the Greeks, albeit victors in the war, did not necessarily encounter jubilant welcoming committees nor victory parades, when they returned home. Some of the key heroes, such as Achilles, died in battle. Of those who survived, some such as Odysseus struggled for years to even make it home, only to face additional challenges once they arrived.
Entire families and dynasties were destroyed by the war. Both victors and vanquished alike. For example, the family of Elektra, a character who appears in the Mozart opera and was sung, at yesterday’s matinee, by South African soprano Elza Van Den Heever.
In Greek “Elektra” means “Amber”, which was apparently considered a cute name for a girl, both then and now. Elektra and her brother Orestes were the children of King Agamemnon of Argos, the latter being one of the main instigators and participants of the Trojan War. Victorious in battle, where he enjoyed the constant protection of the War Goddess Minerva, Agamemnon returned home, only to be offed by his wife, who had taken a lover in his absence. Elektra and Orestes got even by murdering their mom, Clytemnestra. But her death would not go unavenged either.
Greek mythology and the ancient pagan religions have a concept which is similar to “karma”, except that the karma is not enforced by a single entity. Rather, there are a multitude of entities, of varying degrees of power and influence. There are the new High Gods, such as Zeus and Minerva, who attempt to regulate a just and fair society. But there are older forces too. Forces of nature, such as Neptune, God of the Sea. And ancient female-based forces, such as the Furies or Eumenides. Nobody is safe from these varying forces, which often contradict and counteract each other. Human beings are often put into “Catch-22” type situations, where every choice they make is guaranteed to tick off at least one of these supernatural forces.
For example: the story of Elektra and Orestes actually starts with their sister, Iphigenia. Like the Hebrew Bible, Greek mythology is full of legends of fathers sacrificing their children to appease the Gods. Long story short: King Agamemnon of Argos needed to get to Troy to join the war. The Goddess Artemis was ticked off at him and would not allow his ships to sail. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Wife Clytemnestra can never forgive hubby for killing their child. She takes a lover and hopes that hubby dies at Troy. But no, he survives and returns home, only to be killed in his bed. Whenever there is a domestic murder, first suspect the spouse!
Elektra and Orestes get the memo (from a Vengeful Entity) that it is necessary to kill their mother, in order to avenge the death of their father. Feminist historians will see this dilemma as “father-right” superceding “mother-right”. Being modernistic, these siblings side with the Patriarchy. However, by obeying the Patriarchy, they come into conflict with a different Entity, which mandates that a child may not kill his mother under any circumstances. In other words, you can’t win: No matter what you do, you will make enemies among the supernatural forces. Orestes is driven into Hades by The Furies. Elektra survives, but only for a time. She becomes a stock figure in many operas and plays, and she is usually depicted as a complete whack-job. As she is here, in Mozart’s piece.
In the backstory: With her entire family dead and her brother driven into Hades, Elektra has no other options except to seek asylum on the island of Crete. Where she meets Prince Idamante, who is holding down the fort while his father (King Idomeneo) is still struggling to return home from Troy. Elektra falls in love with the idea of being Idamante’s wife and rising to power at the Cretan court. Unfortunately for her, Idamante (sung by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in this juicy “trousers” role) only has eyes for the beautiful Princess Ilia of Troy.
Stranger In A Strange Land
Which brings us to the young soprano Nadine Sierra who played Princess Ilia. This brown-eyed beauty performed brilliantly yesterday. She opened the opera, bursting right out of the gate with the first aria, “Padre, germani, addio” and blowing everybody’s socks off.
Like Elektra, Ilia is a stranger to Crete, but her status is different: She is a prisoner, not a guest. She is a daughter of Trojan King Priam, who was soundly defeated by the Greek army. Priam and most of his numerous family were killed by the rampaging Greeks. Ilia appears to be one of the very few survivors, perhaps the only survivor, of Priam’s immediate family. It is hinted that her life was spared by Cretan King Idomeneo, who is depicted as a good egg, a man capable of mercy and compassion, unlike most of the other Greek warriors.
Ilia was sent to Crete in chains, but apparently on an earlier ship than her captor, Idomeneo. Because she is already living on the island, and has had some period of time to become acclimated to her situation. She can’t forget her family, nor the past horrors; and yet she knows that if she is to have any future, she must accept her situation and try to become a Cretan. Meanwhile, the island awaits in agony as their King Idomeneo is still struggling aboard his ship, navigating a series of storms, and desperately trying to get home.
While adapting to life in captivity, Ilia finds herself falling, almost against her will, for the son of her enemy, Prince Idamante. And he is secretly falling for her too. Like his dad, he is a good man, he is an “enlightened” man in the Mozartian sense; he bears no ill-will for anyone, he played no role in the war, there is no reason why the Gods nor anyone else should turn against him.
As part of the backstory, which we learn about later, Idomeneo’s ship was in such peril, that he and his crew almost didn’t make it. Neptune was ticked off at them, I am not sure why, still more of that “Greek karma” thing — perhaps Neptune was a fan of the Trojans — and set out to shipwreck the whole lot of them. We learn later that, in his desperation to survive, Idomeneo made a very foolish vow and a curse. Probably thinking he was bound to die anyhow and it didn’t really matter what he said, Idomeneo vowed that if he and his crew survived, then he would sacrifice (on Neptune’s altar) the first man that he randomly encountered while walking on the beach.
Sailors: Never make rash vows like this, because the God of the Sea will always call you to account! Recall the story of the Flying Dutchman, whose ship got trapped in a storm as it tried to round the Cape of Good Hope. Recall what the Captain said, how he cursed the gods, and what became his eternal punishment for his hubris. Moral of the story: The Gods do not like smart-mouths.
Because, see, when we first encounter King Idomeneo, he is dragging himself onto the beach from his wrecked ship; and guess who is the first man he randomly encounters walking along the beach? Prince Idamante! Will King Ideomeneo be forced to do to his own son, what King Agamemnon had to do to his daughter, Iphigenia?
[to be continued]