The Masterwork of Mozart presented in a Masterly production
By Iride Aparicio

Photos by: P. Kirk

Idomeneo 1
Christopher Bengochea as King Idomeneo  (center)  surrounded by the pleading Cretans

SAN JOSE, California – Such magnificent production as MOZART’s  IDOMENEO: KING OF CRETE, has never before been presented by IRENE DALIS, General Director of OPERA SAN JOSÉ in this city, or presented by any other director in  another Opera house in the United States. To describe the opening night production of WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791) masterwork, is beyond words. We can state, however, that it was a magic night where the joined talents of all the outstanding stars of design, music, dancing and singing  managed to create in the audience of the California Theatre, a lasting once in a lifetime experience,

The  spark of genius in the  production of IDOMENEO came from Arts Philanthropist  DAVID W. PACKARD, a former professor and lifelong admirer of Mozart, who a few years ago approached OSJ General Director, Miss DALIS with the idea to produce the Opera. By co-producing IDOMENEO, Dr. PACKARD who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is familiar with ancient Crete and the Minoan Art (Art related to the culture of Crete) may have wanted the audience not only to be able to listen to the music of Mozart’s masterwork but also to have a visual experience of the Minoan arts and culture. The production, with a cost close to 4 million dollars, was financed by a grant from The Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) his foundation, and watchfully supervised by him. Under Dr. PACKARD's guidance, the production was set in the Minoan and Mycenean Bronze Age. Elaborate sets were constructed taking inspiration from the archeological sets. Original paintings were reproduced. One hundred and eighty costumes were sewn and artifacts and even jewelry from the epoch, recreated  to enhance the action on the stage.

Set in the island of Crete, IDOMENEO relates the story of Idomeneo, (CHRISTOPHER BENGOCHEA)  the king of Crete, returning home after 10 years fighting in the Trojan war. When his ship is shipwrecked  and  sank during a violent sea storm, Idomeneo promises to Neptune (the Greek’s Sea god) that if he lives, he will sacrifice in his honor the first person he (the king) sees when he touches land. Unfortunately, that person is Prince Idamante (AARON BLAKE) his only son. 

Unable to kill his own son to keep his promise to Neptune, Idomeneo tries to hide him. Arbace (NOVA SAFO) his advisor, suggests he hides Idamante by shipping him and Elettra (CHRISTINA MAJOR), the greek princess that the king wants Idamante to marry, to the isle or Argos. The king agrees.  Elettra, who is in love with Idamante,  is very happy with the plan but Idamante is not pleased because he had fallen

Idomeneo 2in love with  Princess Ilia, (REBECCA DAVIS shown in picture) the daughter of the slain King of Troy. Also unhappy is Ilia who is in love Idamante but refuses to admit it because she feels that by falling in love with a Greek she had betrayed her people, the Trojan slaves who are now living in Crete. Neptune. feeling cheated by Idomeneo, tries to force the king to fulfill his promise by ravaging Crete with storms and sending a MONSTER to devour the people. Terrorized the people implore the king to "get the guilty one" ignoring that the guilty one who had ofended Neptune is him.

For those who are wondering if Idomeneo kills his son, we should mention that when the Opera that debuted in Munich on January 29, l781, was later presented in Vienna, Mozart wrote new music for the work and gave IDOMENEO a happy ending using the Deus ex Machina’s  help.

IDOMENEO the Opera, was a work commissioned to MOZART by the Elector KARL THEODOR of Munich in l780. While inMunich MOZART encountered the Mannheim orchestra that was formed by the best musicians in Europe. The richness of sound of the orchestra, and its precise articulation and phrasing influenced  MOZART in the creation of the orchestral parts for IDOMENEO. Because the work is based in Greek mythological characters and its plot is dramatic, MOZART also noticed that characters in the Opera change their emotions very often, so to express their mood changes MOZART decided to do it with music writing melodies and orchestrations fitting to the emotions. This is the reason why in IDOMENEO the tempo of the music change constantly.    

To get the “sound” from the original work, in this production OSJ. uses a larger orchestra and the orchestra is conducted by  GEORGE CLEVE,  a conductor whose name is almost synonymous with MOZART because he is one of the world’s most devoted interpreters of his music. Seeing Mr. CLEVE conducting, on opening night, using short, crisp and precise movements in both his hands, made us feel as if  the beautiful melodies were floating in the air, flying over our heads, as they metamorphose from notes, written in the pentagram, to magnificent sounds filling the theatre.

IDOMENEO’s  overture sounded powerful with the violins playing, at fast tempo, the notes of their high ranges to emulate the wind. After that the strings went into a dialogue with the deep instrumental sounds of the orchestra, the rythm marked by the beat of a drum to express the pathos of the work.  The overture blended into the beautiful aria in which Ilia (DAVIS) standing alone inside a decorated palace room, reveals her suffering of being left an orphan, after her father was killed in the war, and becoming a slave in Crete because of the Greeks. With a change in the original melody she expresses in a lyric aria her dilemma of  loving  Idamante (BLAKE) for saving her life, when he is the person she should hate for causing her so much personal pain.  The aria ends with Ilia singing: When I look at him (Idamante) I forget how to hate.  Soprano Davis sang the aria in a flute-like tone with a powerful voice and with all  the required emotion. The melismatic aria, was one of many, sang also by the soprano, which received an ovation that night. As Ilia, DAVIS sang using fluent Italian and as her acting as Trojan princess in love with her Greek’s enemy, in all her scenes was convincing. 

High Tenor AARON BLAKE as Idomeneo sang his role well, in spite that the role he played was written, originally,  for a Castrati (male singers who castrated themselves to conserve their feminine timbre in their voices) BLAKE hit all his high notes without trouble and his tone was pleasant. BLAKE’s best aria that night was his “Andro ramingo e solo” a quartet with  Idomeneo, Ilia and Elettra,  considered to be MOZART’S  great assemble, in which Idamante announces that he is leaving  and does not know (or care) what is going to happen to him.  BLAKE's acting, however, could have been better.  As Idamante, BLAKE, has the disconcerting role of  being rejected over and over by his father (He does not know that the reason is that Idomeneo doesn't want to kill him) and if that problem was not bad enough, the prince has fallen in love with Ilia, “his enemy’s” daughter, when he is about to marry princess Elettra. To play this role require different facial expression and the emotion that BLAKE not always manage to convey.

As King Idomeneo, tenor CHRISTOPHER BENGOCHEA  looked and sounded regal. When singing, his Italian was properly pronounced and his mellow dark tone of voice that night sounded resonant and powerful.  His acting was excellent. He Idomeneo 3was both: proud and humble. Proud  when he lands in Crete escorted by his soldiers (see picture at the left) Humble in the previous scene, when he pleads for his life and the lives of his warriors to NEPTUNE, god of the sea.

His best scene and his most dramatic, was when alone, stretched on the deck of his shipwrecked ship, wonders with horror how he is going to feel after he kills the first person he sees, a completely innocent person that he promised Neptune to kill and sacrifice in his honor. Still wondering, he raises his head, and at the distance, he sees that person arriving.

BENGOCHEA’s acting that night was so moving, when expressing his emotions in the lyrics of his arias, that he made us experience his fear, his horror, his pain, his shame for not keeping his promise to Neptune, every one of them. And since his emotions were plenty, the tenor  received  plenty ovations that night.

Also excellent in her acting and singing that night was Elettra (CHRISTINA MAJOR). The soprano who has a beautiful tone of voice, is dramatic so her acting could only be described with one word: Superb, specially in her mad scene.  When as Elettra she finally realizes that Idomeneo loves Ilia and that she is never going to be his queen, invoking in a frantic aria her dead brother Orestes, Elettra starts distorting  her face. We could see the madness reflected in her eyes as she expresses her pain. She grabs a knife from the table. She is ready to kill herself. The scene was one of the Opera's best scenes.

Also well sang and acted in character were the roles of Arbace (NOVA SAFO) and MATHEW EDWARSEN who sang the roles of the King’s adviser and High Priest. The choir was also impressive in its voices and it had a rich sound because it had forty singers. This production of IDOMENEO has also an athletic ballet choreographed by Ballet San Jose Artistic director DENNIS NAHAT. Here we shoud add here that the ballet is poetic in nature and ts style blends perfectly with the Opera’s action.  

As Stage Director, BRAD DALTON needs to be commended for the excellent acting of all the singers, their presentation on the stage and specially for the details that made this IDOMENEO unforgettable. The one that most impressed the audience that night was his NEPTUNE (usually represented by a big face of Neptune on the wall). In this production, however, NEPTUNE is an unidentified white, bare-chested, muscular actor with long white hair who moves silently on the stage wearing a golden  crown over his head.
After King Idomeneo promises Neptune to kill a man,  this NEPTUNE walks towards him and without saying a word, deposits a sword on his hands. After Idomeneo brakes his promise,  this NEPTUNE appears in his room standing, completely silent, pointing his finger at the king. And that accusatory finger says more  that a thousand words.

In a production where each set is a masterpiece, and looks like a postcard, one also need to mention set designer STEVEN C. KEMP who copied archeological pictures to create the magnificent palace rooms with decorated walls and huge red and black pillars. Every person in the audience got a favorite one.  We liked three:  The first one, the one that represents the deck of the shipwrecked ship surrounded by waves as the soldiers struggle with the sea.  The feeling is real becaue proyected around the ship one sees the foaming green waves raising up and coming downas light changes (Designed by CHRISTOPHER OSTROM) simulates the flashes of  lighting and the instruments of the orchestra create the whailing wind, and the sound of a thunders with the drum..  It is awesome.

Our second favorite set represent the port. and we could see at a distance several ships sailing in the ocean. Idamante and Elettra on shore are about to embark, so in a procession we see their servants carrying the trunks, the boxes, the statues and the painted jars, which are the exact replicas of the Minoan Trunks, boxes and statues and the clay jars of the time. Even the colors are copied.

And our third favorite set is the Majestic facade of the palace of Knossos, a replica of the real one, 26 feet high. A mamoth three story building from where King Idomeneo looks as the people from his balcony on the second floor and where we see several courtesans standing on the other balconies. The props in this scene are also to be mentioned because they are unique, they include the life-size head of a painted black bull. Two clay statues  about three feet long representing Phoenician-like ships, and two  clay burners made out of stone. The altar in front of the palace, is for Idamante to lay down before he is killed by his father.

There are l80 colorful costumes in IDOMENEO  designed by JOHANN STEGMEIR and all are elegant. and wigs created JEANNA PARHAM who also put the make up in the faces of the cast.

There are no words to describe this production. To experience IDOMENEO, one has to hear the music, see the sets and become part of the action.  Those who did, enjoyed the experience so much that on opening night they jumped to their feet shouting Bravos and Vivas, in a several minutes long standing ovation.


Idomeneo 4
  L-R Christina Major as Ilia, Christopher Bengochea  Idomeneo and Aaron Blake as Idamante

Highlights of Idomeno may be seen at

Opera San José presents Mozart’s Idomeneo, September 10 – 25, 2011.  Tickets may be ordered online or by phone 408.437.4450 (M-F, 9am to 5pm).