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Idomeneo Theory

In 1984, Gerard Schwarz and Mostly Mozart botched Richard Strauss's reworking of Mozart's problem opera. This time around, they got it right.

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After the skimpy musical offerings of Lincoln Center's Festival 98, the thirty-second edition of Mostly Mozart arrives like champagne in the desert. Over the past several years, this popular summer series has been constantly reexamined, tweaked, condescended to by snoozing music critics, and even threatened with extinction. But it keeps coming back, in most important particulars looking very much as it always has: a friendly mix of standard repertory and arcana with the accent on Mozart, all performed by high-profile musicians.

And audiences seem to like it that way. Gerard Schwarz has been the festival's music director since 1982, and over the years he has quietly been finding ways to make the programming innovative, even festive, without upsetting anyone's expectations. Looking back to the disorderly early days of Mostly Mozart, one sees he has largely succeeded at this delicate dance, exploring new repertory but keeping the favorites in sight, locating fresh talent, and presenting it all in a context that manages to be both welcoming and instructive. Imagine -- the opportunity to hear all 68 Haydn string quartets this summer and next, performed in sensible doses at the festival's new hour-long prelude concerts.

Although no special issue was made of it, the first week's concerts with orchestra were clearly meant to highlight Richard Strauss's adoring but uneasy relationship with Mozart. The two composers shared the opening-night program, which led off with three of Strauss's orchestral songs and excerpts from the incidental music to Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Next came Mozart's first great piano concerto (No. 9, K. 271, played by André Watts) and final symphonic masterpiece (the Jupiter), along with Angelika Kirchschlager to sing arias from his first significant opera (La Finta Giardiniera) and final stage work (La Clemenza di Tito) -- Mozartian riches that rather swamped Strauss's more modest contributions, but the point was made. As he grew older, Strauss became ever more the classicist, and his music increasingly began to draw on the formal precision, proportioned lyrical grace, and instrumental clarity he found in Mozart's scores, characteristics he applied from the perspective of an early-twentieth-century sensibility.

This love affair was consummated, in a manner of speaking, in 1930 when Strauss took it upon himself to "recompose" Mozart's early and, in those days, virtually unknown opera Idomeneo, a score Strauss dearly loved but felt needed drastic revision before contemporary audiences would accept it. Schwarz is the only conductor I know of who has ever had the enterprise -- nay, the nerve -- to bring it back for our inspection. The result is a fascinating, if jolting, example of what happens when the musical tastes and aesthetics of one generation are imposed on those of another, in this case an attempt to turn a formal eighteenth-century opera seria into a steamy post-Wagnerian music drama. Like most historical curiosities, this updated Idomeneo was fated to be eventually scorned and set aside, especially now that the original has come back into fashion. Still, any score by such an important composer, even one that plays quirky variations on themes by Mozart, is worth hearing.

One would like to think that Strauss himself modestly considered his work an interim measure, a drastic overhaul to be discarded as soon as audiences were ready to take their Mozart straight. Somehow, though, I doubt it. Strauss seems to have been having too much fun with this rescue mission, pruning arias, touching up the orchestration, shuffling scenes around, composing new music, and in general hoping to make Mozart's problem opera more palatable. Act One contains only minor tinkering compared with Act Two, where the revisionist really warms to his task. By the time we reach the last act, Mozart has disappeared almost entirely, and the brand-new quartet that closes the opera is nothing less than vintage late Strauss, a gorgeous piece reminiscent of the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier or the last scene of Arabella. Mostly Mozart here definitely becomes Strictly Strauss.

Schwarz first unveiled this intriguing hybrid at the 1984 festival, a performance compromised by last-minute cast changes and insufficient preparation. The conductor has now rectified that misstep by taking a second crack at the score, and the result is a triumph for all concerned. As a musician with extensive practical experience performing both Mozart and Strauss, Schwarz is just as expert at projecting the former's finely graded classical elegance as he is with savoring the latter's lush tonal generosity, blending the two styles in masterly fashion. The women seized the vocal honors, Angelika Kirchschlager as a bravura Idamante, Olga Makarina as a meltingly lyrical Ilia, and Christine Brewer as a dramatically powerful and note-perfect Ismene (as Elettra is renamed in this version). Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has the heroic muscle, sweet tone, and vocal agility to make him an ideal Idomeneo (although he badly needs a German-language coach), and the brief lower-voiced contributions were ably supplied by James Courtney (High Priest) and Mark Oswald (Arbace/A Voice). A great night for Mostly Mozart -- a pity no one thought to record the performance.

An all-Schumann Lieder recital by German baritone Matthias Goerne marked another high point of Mostly Mozart's opening week. Like the controversial Ian Bostridge, a British tenor who sang a similar program at the Frick Museum last spring and totally freaked out an offended Times critic, Goerne takes an individual approach to his work, combining a tense interior interpretive style with an in-your-face delivery that irritates some but mesmerizes others. His mannerisms include a wavering body, frequent deep knee bends, singing on tiptoe, and hands that travel all over the place. None of this bothered me, since Goerne uses his physicality as a natural expressive device so that his entire body becomes an integral part of the song. Besides, the voice itself is a gorgeous instrument, creamy smooth in every part of its range, and his control of dynamics, from whispered pianissimo to anguished forte, is just short of staggering. A bit more variety of vocal color would have been welcome, but let's not quibble. Superb young singers of German lieder are amazingly plentiful these days -- and here is yet another.


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