[I’m not sure whether we could make Elettra stand in for the Wookie, but other than that, everything is settled for the interstellar happy ending on Planet Idomeneo, where, for once, Luke Skywalker will end up with Leia. – Monica Bacelli (
Luke Idamante), Steve Davislim ( Han Idomeneo) and Camilla Tilling ( Leia Ilia) in Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, which I never thought about as a space opera until today. Staged by Luc Bondy for La Scala, Milan 2005.]
This past week, I slipped and fell into an Idomeneo-shaped hole to end up in late seria Wonderland for a while. I had just about forgotten how much I love this opera (and not just for the chance of mezzos making out with sopranos, although that is part of the appeal).
“Idomeneo” and I have a history. I first stumbled upon it when I was at the edge of thirteen, an awkward baby dyke with no vocabulary to describe what set me apart, but even so, something made me click instantly with this opera – sweet young love that could be seen as gay if you squinted just right (not that I even knew back then that I *wanted* to squint ‘that way’), a regal older soprano who commands the stage, and a happy ending despite all the drama. What’s not to love?
I hold fond memories of 13-year-old Anik in the musicology department of the local library, checking out Attila Csampai essays on “Idomeneo” and then spending the seaside spring vacation holed up with research literature (much of which probably went right over my head), drawing awkward costume sketches (in which Idamante still looked like a young man – I was a little slow on the uptake), and feeling a little less lost in the world I was growing into.
The love for this opera has stuck with me. In retrospect I see how much it has to offer to queer-identifying youth, not just with the sweet, youthful love story that prevails against all odds, and the coming-of-age figure of the older, seductive woman to be both intimidated by and attracted to (the famous Marie-Theres’ pattern most opera dykes will be familiar with). More than that, I know see the struggle of someone not yet hardened by circumstance within a paternalist system; the craving for recognition within family structure that is denied until the very end. And, in tandem with that, the rejection of that first, overwhelming, and endearingly innocent love – the one we all probably remember with a smile and a tear intermingled – as something wrong: Ethnicity and politics easily stand in as a code for queer desire as Idamante tries to reconcile social expectations, wants to fit in and does not quite fit, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing he is acting.
It is the sensation of being singled out, of unfair persecution – the Gods, on a whim, decided that he should be sacrificed because his father said so. And it is the immediate expectation of being rejected by the woman (in this instance, possibly “girl” would be a better fit) “he” loves, and beating himself up about loving her, about the Gods whom he blames for feeling this way, even while he does not want to let go of being in love. He feels punished “for a crime I did not commit” and yet he remains so hung up on Ilia, and just a word – one word – of rejection is all he asks, if only she will speak that to him at least. And he does not dare to imagine anything else. – Sound vaguely familiar?
The opera all but starts with Idamante confessing his love to Ilia, and at just a glance from her, he leaps into a desperate defense of his feelings, something he struggles with well into Act Three, where Ilia, faced with Idamante going off on a suicide mission because he cannot find a place for himself in this world, admits that she loves him back. And the mere idea of this being a chance – of Ilia loving Idamante in return, of a place for this desire, and an answer to it – must have been what turned “Idomeneo” into such a hopeful opera for me.
The 2005 reading by Luc Bondy illustrates this perfectly – it is a production that does not deny itself that sliver of hope, against fate and Gods, and against rejected desire. It is a very humanist production. Bondy, much like Chérau, is a director of small, perfectly staged details in interpersonal relation, creating a seamless scope that fits the singers’ abilities as much as it fits the drive of the story. They simply don’t need anything else to uphold a convincing narrative.
Ilia and Idamante here are achingly endearing, captured as blushing young lovers with all the exuberance and idealistic stance that affection brings. Camilla Tilling is wonderful, with just enough spunk to avoid the princess clichés. I dare you not to go “awww” at the storyline in this staging.
[Monica Bacelli (Idamante) and Camilla Tilling (Ilia), “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005 ]
Before we continue on to Idamante, a word on Emma Bell’s Elettra – who sings beautifully in places where other dramatic sopranos often use the fury as a lever for a less cultivated tone. Which is not to say that she doesn’t sell the ire: she does, and she packs quite a punch, too. All three arias are a delight (my selection of Idomeneos is usually determined by a) is Idamante sung by a mezzo? and b) is Elettra’s third aria included?), also something noteworthy – usually, either the dramatic ones or the gentle middle one fall a little flat. Bell is dressed like a timeless Antigone, pleats and bracelets, and wonderfully walks the line between the scorned fury two sizes too tall for Idamante, and the unhappy young woman who is a bit less gracious than Idamante about not finding a place for her desires (something that always makes her very sympathetic to me).
The real star of the show, though – if we had to pick one – is Daniel Harding’s conducting. Damn, he is good.
And then, of course, there is Monica Bacelli as Idamante.
[I can pull off navy trenchcoats and cargo pants and there is my haircut: of course I get fanmail from lesbians from the late 1990s. – Monica Bacelli as Idamante, “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005]
Bacelli is a stage veteran as well as an Early Music scene veteran, yet her portryal – both in singing and in acting – comes across fresh, charming and convincing. I mostly heard her with concert repertory before, but after this one, I really need to go digging further. I partcularly commend her taking on a trouser role the way she does, which – as Italian-socialized woman in an Italian setting – is not the easiest access route.
[Lights! and Le Mozart Hot! – Monica Bacelli (Idamante), “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005]
It does change the perception – and it makes the role more readily readable as queer – that Bacelli isn’t a youngish mezzo hero. The energy – her convinving protrayal of gentle, youthful masculinity notwithstanding – she brings to the part leaves us with an Idamante who could not just pass as a somewhat older, lesbian Luke Skywalker in the finale, but there is also a slight trace of Julie Andrews refinement ca. “Victor/Victoria”. And of Emma Thompson (or Emma Thompson’s would-be younger queer sister), ca. 1998. Also, this Idamante could pull shifts for Janet Fraiser (in case that one were out of office saving her girlfriend half across the galaxy), and I’d also say that she could pass as a Democrat Presidential Hopeful, ca. 2006-present.
I wish I could have seen this produciton at age 13, but perhaps the fact that I could not, and that I had to piece together vague ideas and the sensation of someting just out of reach, is what has left me with such a fondness for the opera. And I maintain that “Non ho colpa” is the perfect angsty lesbian courtship aria. Caroling and all.
Don’t take my word for any of this, though: The production is availabe in full, with subtitles in Italian and English, on YouTube, thanks to Agapò Te Musikò 2. Highly recommended!