Review: An “Idomeneo” Surprise in San Francisco – Daniela Mack’s Princely Idamante, October 26, 2008

By tradition and for practical reasons, persons who review opera performances usually attend the first performance in a season of a given opera, although persons reviewing performances at several companies often must attend a second or later performance at one company to be able to accommodate to the schedule of another. Almost every company is assured of chroniclers of their first, and often their second performances, but it is “hit or miss” if someone from either the print or electronic media is present later in a performance run.

However, interesting things can happen after opening night, particularly if a major artist is indisposed. This website reported on the arrangements Houston Grand Opera made when William Burden found himself unable to sing the title role of Gounod’s “Faust” [See A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007.]

The website also reported on the disastrous consequences (at least from the standpoint of judging the performance) that occurred at the Zurich Opera when Isabel Rey, playing Norina, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital partway into the second act of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”. [See No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007.]

I suspect that the tenor Beau Gibson very much appreciated having someone there to record impressions of his successful contribution to salvaging the evening in Houston, and I suspect that the Zurich Opera very much regrets that anyone from any media (nor probably anyone else) experienced their failed “Pasquale”.

Sometimes an indisposed artist is replaced by another singer who has the role in his or her repertoire, and from the audience’s standpoint, all goes smoothly, as I noted in my review of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” last year in San Diego, when Eduardo Villa flew across country to replace another Manrico.

And sometimes one artist’s indisposition can lead to another’s early career milestone. That is what I believe happened at War Memorial Opera House for the fourth performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” of the season, when Argentine soprano Daniela Mack replaced an injured Alice Coote as Idamante.

[Below: the seaside court of Idomeneo; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Unlike the reports from Houston and Zurich, the replacement of Ms Coote by Ms Mack represented the workings of an expert contingency plan.  Ms Mack is currently a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow. Typically, an important assignment of each Fellow is to “cover” principals and to be on stand-by if something should occur that prevents the principal from performing.

[Below: Soprano Daniela Mack was Idamante in a role debut, edited image, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.  At present, no production photograph exists of Ms Mack in her Idamante costume.]

Unlike San Diego Opera’s scramble to obtain Mr Villa’s services as Manrico, which inevitably included a crash course on the stage directions, the Adler role understudies not only learn the parts, but how to act and move in the role – in this case in stage director John Copley’s vision of the drama. One also suspects that the costume department is a much less frenzied place when the cover is an Adler fellow for whom they already have a good idea of any costume adjustments that might be needed should the principal not be able to go on with the show.

Obviously, when the principal listed in the program cannot appear, an announcement to the audience is made – in this case by General Director David Gockley. Coote is a highly-regarded artist with fans worldwide, surely including many disappointed members of the San Francisco Opera audience.

However, Mack appeared so comfortable in the role, and sang so beautifully with a voice that fit nicely with the other principals, that if there were not inserts in the program and the general director announcing the cast change, I suspect much of the audience would have imagined that Mack was always the management’s original choice for casting Idamante.

Notes on the Performance

Donald Runnicles, conducting his third opera of San Francisco Opera’s 2008-09 season (and the fourth since June of this calendar year), led a spirited performance of Mozart’s overture – that, in so many ways, is an advance on any orchestral piece for an opera written up to that time. When one hears this impressive work (of course, played by a team as splendid as Donald Runnicles with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra), one is amazed at the 25 year old Mozart’s genius at composition.

The curtains open on John Conklin’s sets, originally created in 1989 and repeated once a decade since. They are discussed in more detail below. In “Idomeneo”, before the tenor who plays the title character first appears, there are major arias for all three of the characters usually played (for the past two centuries) by women.

The part of Idamante was initially written for a male castrato and has the distinction of being the last role written for that now extinct vocal category for an opera that still is regularly performed.  The vocal range of the particular castrato for whom Mozart composed the role was closest to a modern mezzo-soprano.

But Mozart also revised the opera for a private performance, repositioning Idamante’s vocal line for the tenor voice. Anyone who sings Idamante may be thought of as representing either the “mezzo” or “tenor” traditions, each of which has its partisans. (San Francisco Opera has had it both ways, with tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz performing Idamante in 1989.)

The rationale for a tenor performing Idamante has to do with the opera’s storyline. The tenor voice, when compared with the mezzo voice, produces a more masculine sound, which results in the dramatic image of a young man mature enough to take over the reigns of the kingdom.

However, I believe that no one in “Idomeneo” controls their own fate. They are literally playthings of the gods. Whether Idamante is a precocious young teenager or a mature young adult, it is Neptune and other gods like him who decides what is to happen in this Cretan kingdom. In such an environment of rampant determinism, I think it matters most who can best sing the music that Mozart wrote for Idamante, whether in its original or revised form. A glorious tenor trumps a weak mezzo and vice versa.

Mack beautifully provided the “mezzo case”. Visually, in her elegant gold and white doublet with flowing gold cape (in which Mack at one point briefly became entangled), gold tights and boots, she projected the image of an ardent young man. Her pleasing, focused vibrato seemed the right instrument for the two great arias on which any Idamante is judged, Non ho colpa and Il padre adorato.

The role of Ilia was played by Genia Kuehmeier, debuting at San Francisco Opera. Her first aria Padre, germani, addio! revealed a pure soprano that contrasted nicely with Mack’s mezzo voice. The interplay of Kuehmeier’s voice in her second act aria Se il padre perdei with the orchestra’s principals playing bassoon, French horn, oboe and flute was a performance highlight, as was her great third act aria Zeffiretti lusinghieri.

[Below: Genia Kuehmeier as Princess Ilia; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

In further contrast, Iano Tamar (another company debut) competently assayed Elettra’s highly dramatic music, including the fireworks of her final aria, D’Oreste d’Aiace.

[Below: Iano Tamar as Princess Elettra; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The title role was sung by Kurt Streit, an 1986 alumnus of the S. F. Opera’s Merola program for operatic “apprentices”, who later had sung four important leggiero tenor roles at S. F. Opera during the 1990s, including the bel canto lead roles of Belmonte in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” (1990) and Don Ramiro in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in 1995. His pure, agile light tenor seemed ideal for the music written for this part that many tenors with much heavier voices (including Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti) have performed.

[Kurt Streit is Idomeneo; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

In fact, each of the arias delivered by the four principals was sung well, and the voices were particularly well-balanced for Mozart’s ensembles – the trio between Idomeneo, Idamante and Elettra and the sublime quartet in which those three are joined by Ilia.

Copley’s direction makes use of Conklin’s sometimes attractive, but often sombre sets. A gray back wall with a diagonal crack opens for Elettra’s entrances and closes behind her at the end of her aria.  The walls similarly close at the end of Idamante’s second aria. It seems obvious that Copley relishes having an alternative to his principal walking off stage left or stage right after one of their “exit arias”.

Some of the production’s ideas are arresting. For the famous storm scene that ends Act II, the image of a ship in distress appears, ragged sails unfurled in a stormy sea. The chorus, in 18th century dress strongly influenced by Cretan styles, as always, performed the exciting accompanying music admirably.

[Below: The Act II storm distresses Idomeneo (Kurt Streit) and chorus; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The Conklin sets proved to be most congenial for the scene between Idomeneo and Arbace (nicely sung by Adler fellow Alek Shrader) that displayed a luxurious seascape enhanced by distant small islands.

An imaginative episode utilizes small children holding long cloth banners representing the sea, on which other children between the cloths lift model ships that appear to be sailing on the sea. A panorama of Idomeneo’s shipwreck is created when the kids shake the cloth.

[Idomeneo (Kurt Streit) contemplates one of the children’s model ships as Arbace (Alek Shrader) stands above him; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Even with much to admire in the performances of Streit, Kuehmeier and Tamar, the day belonged to Daniela Mack, who portrayed a convincing Prince Idamante, to a rousing audience ovation.

Conklin in Context

Conklin’s work shown at San Francisco Opera has been variable.  He deserves high marks for his physical productions of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” (1977) and the four operas of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” (1983 et seq.). Unfortunately, all of these five productions were destroyed by the previous general manager, and not having them available is greatly to be lamented.  Conklin’s costumes, sans sets, for “Ballo” were in use in 2006, creating some continuing confusion as to whose sets were seen that year.  (They were Zack Brown’s – unidentified as such, apparently at Brown’s request.)

Unfortunately, some of Conklin’s work misses the mark. He created the sets for the outrageous production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” borrowed from Seattle and seen here to the consternation of San Francisco Opera audiences in 2002.

The “Idomeneo” sets are a mixture of good and bad. Underlying them is the general recognition that Crete, the island that Idomeneo rules, is tectonically active, and that Cretan civilization has suffered disastrous earthquakes and tidal waves. We are immersed in broken Ancient Greek architecture. Columns, pediments, stone arches, all are cracked and are missing pieces.

Reality is broken too, with pieces of columns and statuary and other architectural fragments hanging surreally from the air.  (Between the 1999 and 2008 mountings of Conklin’s “Idomeneo” sets, San Francisco observed his surreal motives in extremis through the Seattle “Trovatore” with giant heads of philosophers hanging above a troubadour’s grand piano.)

Although there are much higher priorities than creating a new production of “Idomeneo”, management should make a note NOT to revive this particular production for a fourth time in San Francisco.  There is enough that is positive about it that one could imagine some of the regional companies with capacity for set construction “refurbishing” this one, discarding, at a minimum, the fragments of structures that hang from the air.

Should anyone ask, my favorite “Idomeneo” production shown in San Francisco was the one for which Jean-Pierre Ponnelle devised the sets, costumes and stage direction for the Cologne Opera, which he brought to the Bay Area in 1977. That one, if it still exists somewhere, is imminently revivable.

When Stars are Born

It may be of interest to some, that the late San Francisco Opera former general director Kurt Herbert Adler, for whom the Adler Fellows were named, had more than one experience in figuring out what to do when a principal suddenly became unavailable for performance.

Perhaps the most memorable instance was the night in 1961 that Margarethe Bence was scheduled to sing Fenena in Verdi’s “Nabucco” but became ill the prior day.  Janis Martin, then a young soprano, was called upon to learn the part in 24 hours. She performed gloriously, and the gratitude and admiration for her effort led Adler to reward her with future major parts that launched one of the 20th century’s great careers.

We may look back on the Sunday matinee of October 26, 2008 as such a turning point in the career of Daniela Mack.