Final opera of the season successfully breaks new ground

Harvey Steiman
For the Aspen Times
The Emerson String Quartet says goodbye to the Aspen Music Festival on Wednesday with a flourish.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Aspen said goodbye to the much-loved Emerson Quartet last week at the Aspen Music Festival and heard joltingly big-boned music from another Aspen regular in Bobbie McDuffie. But a Mozart opera refashioned intriguingly for the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent stole the show.

Before a relatively-sparse audience on Thursday, director Francesca Zambello’s streamlined production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” put the emphasis on the music. Conducted by Robert Spano, the glorious sounds of the composer’s first big-time opera emerged with beauty and force, with the help of a star tenor and a professional chorus to deliver the biggest moments.

Matthew Polenzani, perhaps today’s best in the title role, lavished burnished tone and seamless legato on the music, but the young voices of Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS were not far behind. Seraphic Fire, the Miami-based chorus that has become a regular late-season visitor here, stood in the choir tier to give the extraordinary choruses extra depth and punch.

Zambello’s critical innovation replaced the opera’s endless plot-revealing “dry” recitative, half-tunes sung to the accompaniment of a harpsichord, with a new character — a spoken-word narrator. All the music involving the orchestra, every aria, duet, and ensemble, remained intact while trimming more than an hour off the run time.

The Trojan Woman, a survivor of the wars, stays on stage for the whole opera. The script, written in vernacular English by dramaturg Kelley Rourke, frames a concise explanation of the complicated plot as an extended complaint. Actress Cindy Gold played her like a Trojan yenta.

Based on classical Greek tragedies, the story centers on how the title character (the King of Crete) deals with his promise to the god Neptune to sacrifice the first person he encounters upon escaping a storm at sea. Of course, it is his son (a reformer who has already freed Trojan war slaves), thus opening the door to some of Mozart’s most anguished arias. Polenzani plumbed them all for inspired color without losing the essential Classical-era refinement.

Standouts in the supporting cast included mezzo-soprano Amanda Battista, who played the drama queen Elettra like a deranged Bette Davis and sang the alternately seductive and angry music on point. As Idamante, the would-be king, mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner sang with appropriately regal character, and as Ilia, a Trojan captive in love with Idamante, soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth produced a silky-sweet sound that matched seamlessly with Wagner’s in a ravishing Act II duet.

On the men’s side, bass-baritone Alan Williams played Neptune not as a disembodied voice accompanied in a critical moment by a trombone trio, as is usual, but as a green-robed, hooded manifestation haunting several scenes, demanding obedience from Idomeneo. Another winning dramatic touch from Zambello.

In the end, though, opera in the tent is a compromise from the get-go. Seating for more than an hour at a go is not the most comfortable. Sets cannot be elaborate. Voices need to be amplified, especially in spoken dialogue. Although the singing sounded surprisingly natural, sound engineers could have adjusted amplification on spoken words to better match the volume of singing.

Thankfully, plans are for a to-be-announced Mozart opera to return to the more intimate Wheeler Opera House, where the natural sound of the human voice can prevail and more extensive scenery can enhance it.

Idomeneo (star tenor Matthew Polenzani) contemplates fulfilling a promise to the gods to slay his son in Aspen Music Festival’s opera in the music tent.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

On Wednesday in Harris Hall, in easily the most extroverted recital of the summer, violinist Robert McDuffie powered through sonatas by Peter Mennin and George Enescu and anchored a sextet in Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.” Although more than a few quiet moments afforded respites in each of these pieces, they all seemed to start broadly and end with a bang.

Mennin, best known as the Juilliard president who moved the conservatory’s campus to Lincoln Center, first had a career as a composer. His “Sonata Concertante” from 1956 (which McDuffie actually played in Aspen back in 1983) proved to be a thorny beast. Except for a relatively brief lyrical middle, it was pungent with dissonance but blessedly heavy in rhythmic variety.

Pianist Derek Wang was an able partner in this work and in the Enescu sonata that followed. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who studied with Enescu and later mentored McDuffie, often played it; he even recorded it three times. It’s an odd duck, rife with Roumanian Gypsy violin tropes. The first two movements, a start-and-stop series of cadenzas and rhapsodic expressions, finally found a constant rhythm in the finale, and it came to a satisfying climax.

McDuffie was on his game, investing the music with all kinds of intensity and flair. If his relentless energy leading “Souvenir” might have benefited from an occasional breath, the team of McDuffie, Luna Choi (violins), Wesley O’Brien, and Isaac Lopez (violas), as well as Ania Lewis and Garri Hovsepyan (cellos) nailed all the big moments, of which the piece had many.

The Emerson String Quartet has played in Aspen almost every year starting in the early 1980s and was a vital part of the festival’s program for string quartet musicians on the cusp of their careers. Their milestones here include recording all 15 Shostakovich Quartets live and presenting a memorable Beethoven quartet cycle. Before Harris Hall opened in 1993, they played the first notes ever sounded in it.

In a touching gesture, their final performance on Tuesday in Harris Hall honored Joseph Kalichstein, a pianist long associated with this festival who often completed piano quintets and quartets with them and who died in March 2022. They dedicated the first piece, George Walker’s elegiac “Lyric for Strings,” to members of his family attending.

That one flowed sweetly, but the rest of the pieces, an ideal summation of composers that focused on here, found the quartet at less than its best. Maybe violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins were fatigued by their year-long, nearly nonstop farewell tour of North America and Europe. Perhaps Aspen’s elevation got to them, but their almost preternatural precision, this ensemble’s calling card, eluded them.

The lively pizzicato movement in the Ravel Quartet lumbered erratically. The violins screeched in Shostakovich No. 12, which lost momentum at several points. Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartet was closer to their standard, flowing gracefully, its rhythms bouncing, the finale building to a nice climax.

And the encore, “I Wander Often Past Yonder House (Kol domu se teď potácím)” a Dvořák song the composer arranged for a string quartet, emerged with ravishing serenity. It fit the evening’s sense of farewell.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years. His reviews appear Saturdays and Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.

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