Last Saturday, we hiked to the multiplex to hear and watch the Met's HD performance of Idomeneo. Once again, the opera did not disappoint. Early Mozart and glorious, especially the rousing choruses, while soprano Nadine Sierra was a luminous Illia. A silly story, of course, but for once there was a happy ending --a young man and a young woman, of different heritages, were allowed to marry -- hurrah. Not without the forgiveness of a god -- in this case, Neptune, who could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if he had been quicker to act but unfortunately didn't bother to theophanize until the passing of four hours (including extended intermissions) and three long acts of melodic anguish and dread.
Nevertheless, I was troubled. "And what was it this time, Mr. Malcontent," you ask.
It was the "trouser" role. The "hero" of the opera, Idamante, the guy who gets the girl, was played by Alice Coote, a soprano, a middle-aged woman not at all "boyish," but full-figured, prominently bosomed, and generously hipped. She was costumed as a ancient Cretan soldier, with an ineffective corset under her corselet and with a circle of what looked like old-fashioned elongated leather shaving strops or giant bookmarks hanging from waist to ankle. But her outfit did not fool me, even though I'm very good at suspending disbelief. Trust me, I can suspend like crazy.
And I know that there's no point going to the opera if you can't suspend disbelief. One would think that once you accept the idea that the performers are going to aria at each other whenever they are together and aria at the audience when they are alone, and that they are followed wherever they go by a 100-piece orchestra, you can believe anything at all. But I have to admit that I boggled at Coote/Idamante and that I was suffiently distracted that my pleasure in the opera was compromised, diminished. At the climax, I thought, "oh no, don't let them kiss." (They didn't, when they should have, and would have,if Idamante had been not a soprano but a tenor or baritone -- perhaps the director was as squeamish as I.)
Idamante is customarily (but not always) played by a soprano because the part was originally written for a castrato, in this case Signor Vincenzo del Prato (no doubt known to his buddies as del Prato the castrato, or perhaps, as gli italiani would say, del Prato il castrato). I suppose that it is considered "authentic" to sing the part in the register in which it was composed. But why not transpose it down an octave and give it to a handsome tenor. Yes, it would be different, but to my eyes, much better. After all, authenticity has already been compromised -- Alice Coote is no Vincenzo del Prato. Nor do not hear even the most enthusiastic supporters of "period" performances calling for a revival of castrati.
Shakespeare's women were played by boys. But even the new Globe, with its fetish for ancient ways, does not insist on a boy Cleopatra or a boy Juliet. And all to the good, in my opinion.