A Note from the Maestro
by Maestro Joseph Rescigno
Idomeneo is unquestionably a masterpiece. It may well be the greatest opera seria ever written. Before Mozart, Gluck had taken the form to its highest peaks. Later, opera seria influenced the dramatic operas of Rossini, and even to some extent Meyerbeer. Idomeneo remained one of Mozart’s favorite compositions, something that is all the more remarkable since he was 25 years old when he composed it and subsequently wrote both The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.
Yet, for most of its history, Idomeneo was eclipsed by The Magic Flute and the three operas the composer wrote with Lorenzo Da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte). Even in Germany, it was Mozart’s other great opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito, that held the stage more than Idomeneo.
Idomeneo has been gaining ground over the past 30 years, however. It is a vast work with two versions: Munich and Vienna. In his lifetime, Mozart himself changed and/or deleted sections. In the Munich (first) version, there was a major ballet, for example. Mozart also streamlined the vocal writing for Vienna, making it less florid. In addition, two roles were changed in fundamental ways: Arbace was transformed from a tenor to a baritone while Idamante was changed from a castrato to a tenor. This Florentine production is based largely on the earlier Munich version, with its florid vocalism. A tenor will sing Arbace and, consistent with many years’ tradition, the castrato part of Idamante will be sung by a mezzo-soprano.
The glory of Idomeneo lies in its music, of course. It contains some of Mozart’s greatest arias and, apart from some liturgical music, his most extensive and dramatic writing for the chorus. The chorus does not play as big a role in Mozart’s better known works but, as the populace of Crete, the chorus is one of the major players in Idomeneo. The Florentine chorus, therefore, deserves special mention for this production. In addition, Idomeneo’s orchestral writing is forward-looking and virtuosic. Listen to the chorus and orchestra in the storm at the end of Act II, for example. A listener hearing it in isolation could be forgiven for thinking it was music by Beethoven or even an early Verdi work. Mozart’s dramatic flair was evident even in the more stylized genre of opera seria.
The primary challenge for the conductor in this work is remaining flexible. There is a great deal of recitative, or speech-like declamation. In part, these are free-form “continuo recit” passages where the conductor can and should keep a loose hold on the reins. In this production, the continuo recit is in the capable hands of harpsichordist Yasuko Oura and cellist Scott Tisdel. In Idomeneo, though, we also have a great deal of orchestral recit. With the orchestra, the conductor’s leadership is essential, of course. And yet, a great danger in accompanying such relatively monochromatic singing is falling into “just” beating time, which comes off as rigid, pedantic, and just plain dull. With Wagner and Puccini, it pays to remain disciplined; the composer incorporates plenty of emotion into the notes on the page. Here, on the other hand, one must remain alert to every conceivable opportunity for expression, nuance, and flexibility while maintaining tension and propulsion.
A secondary—but non-trivial—challenge in Idomeneo is the language. I am fluent in Italian, but Idomeneo is written in a language closer to what was spoken in the late Renaissance. Opera seria generally took its plots from antiquity, and this language was meant to evoke ancient Greece, whereas Da Ponte’s more modern and naturalistic librettos use contemporary, colloquial Italian. For example, the modern Italian word for brothers is “fratelli,” but “germani” is used in Idomeneo. This is considerably more archaic than we generally see—as when authors toss some “thees” and “thous” into a modern English work in order to evoke an earlier time.
All in all, for many reasons, I am thrilled to be conducting this very important Florentine premiere: it involves intellectual challenges, and immersing oneself in Mozart would be reward enough in any case. Working with singers in challenging repertory is always gratifying. And the joy of leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is only magnified when we get to do music that we have never before performed together.
- by Maestro Joseph Rescigno, April 2012
Joseph Rescigno has served for 28 years as Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the Florentine Opera Company.