Irritating Idomeneo

8 Nov

Idomeneo isn’t an easy opera but I wonder if it has to be as difficult and unpleasant as Martin Kušej’s irritating production of it at the ROH made it. I saw it on 6th November – there was no booing but I don’t think that the audience felt that it was one the house’s great evenings.

Kušej wants to make a political point of the opera and he does so by changing the plot and telling you about this through the surtitles. There is no god, Neptune. Only a false cult led be a pantomime villain of a High Priest. Apparently, that High Priest “forces” Idomeneo to promise to kill his son because the priest is offended by the release of the Trojan slaves. The cult forces the chorus to praise Neptune and, it would, appear, a giant rubber shark. Idomeneo, apparently, is a totalitarian ruler, though there is no particular evidence of this in acting. I’ve no idea what the sea monster was or how Idamante killed it – the surtitles suggested that he “fell upon this plague”. On hearing this, the chorus take out red cloaks and these people, led by “The Voice” (so it says in the programme), depose Idomeneo. He is seen, apparently imprisoned and, I think, blinded. The ballet music is played, but there is no ballet. The front cloth falls and has some words projected on to it – some about regimes remaining the same. It rises and the stage slowly revolves and there is enough to suggest that Ilia and Idamante do not solve the problems of Crete.

Did it work? Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not its legitimate to use the surtitles to explain what’s going on – I’m not suggesting that it can never work.  Here it didn’t. I found myself confused by what was going on and often had problems working out who the chorus and actors were representing at any particular time and why it mattered.  The scene of Idomeneo’s arrival and, apparent discussion with the High Priest was mimed and, I thought, confusing.  I wasn’t sure why Elettra had a group of white-clad schoolchildren unless they were to set up the ballet picture of them all toting guns. The whole staging of the last part of Act III seemed confusing to me while the staging of the ballet music screamed that here was a director who had lost a battle over the cuts with the conductor and was taking revenge.

It’s in modern dress. The set – a sort of revolving maze would serve very well for a number of other operas and did well enough here about from a quite badly executed bank of mud, blood and clothes for Act III. There were a lot of distracting rain effects early on. There was the odd touch of interest: Elettra was an extremely attracting woman and there was an obvious attraction between her and Idamante. Kušej suggested a really interesting portrayal of Arbace as a Thersites-type clown or outsider without it really contributing anything to the story.  Most of the other direction of the characters would not have looked out of place in the most traditional production you could imagine.

Part of this is to do with what I think about Idoemeno.  For me, one of the important things about the opera is the impotence of individuals against the will of the gods and how things they cannot control affect their decisions and relationships. There is an element of politics in and about how decisions of rulers affect the people but this seems to me to be compromised when there are people themselves intervening. All the successful productions that I’ve seen have managed to get across a reality involving implacable, uncontrollable gods and events.  I didn’t get that here and Kušej’s replacement vision simply wasn’t well enough executed to work.

Musically, it had a lot going for it. Not everyone has praised Marc Minkowski’s production but, apart from an uncomfortably fast tempo for Zeffiretti lusinghieri and an irritatingly intrusive fortepiano, I thought that he provided very strong leadership.   He couldn’t make a strong case for the ballet music, partly because of the production, but mostly because its inclusion strikes me as completely incompatible with modern taste.  Mozart wrote it because it was required in Munich at the time (though, as the programme pointed out, he could easily have delegated it to someone else) and he’d surely have been only too happy to cut it if he felt that it wouldn’t go down well.  Here, I felt the overwhelming feeling of being kept in after school and all the boredom and irritation that goes with that – and the only thing I’d done wrong was buy a ticket!  Otherwise, the music sounded alert and dramatic but with enough relaxation for us to enjoy the textures and colours of the score. I thought the orchestra and chorus absolutely first rate and it reminded me of a what a wonderful score this is.

Matthew Polenzani made a young Idomeneo. I thought his singing excellent. What I missed was a level of anguish and intensity that you might expect from a man who is desperately trying to find a way of breaking a promise and then seeing the result – a tension that Philip Langridge used to manage wonderfully. I doubt that he had much help from the director.

Franco Fagioli was a counter tenor Idamante. He looked handsome and acted the role well enough. Vocally, I wasn’t sure whether he was quite right. He could clearly manage the notes and got quantities of passion and bravura into the music. On the other hand, the words weren’t clear and it struck me that this was a style of singing that might work for music of half a century earlier but which might not be clean enough for Mozart.

Malin Byström struck me as a marvellous Elettra. As I’ve suggested, she was a hugely attractive woman and sang her arias really beautifully – though there is a terrifying madness in her last number which she didn’t quite get. Sophie Bevan, perhaps a tad young, sang very nicely indeed as Ilia – she made it sound as fluent and easy as you’d hope.  As I’ve suggested, Kušej had come up with a fascinating concept for Arbace and Stanislas de Barbeyrac executed it brilliantly and sang really well – he made you regret that the role is so small and suggested all kinds about the man that you’d never get from the opera.  I’m still not sure what it had to do with Idomeneo but I’d really like to see him again – he strikes me as an important singing actor.  Krystian Adam made a suitably vicious High Priest.

I’ve a very soft spot for this opera and try to get to see it whenever it’s done.  This performance renewed my love for the music and admiration for an opera where you suddenly feel that Mozart is engaging with the form and able to get towards his ambitions in a way that simply doesn’t happen in, say Finta giardiniera.  I simply felt irritated at a production that didn’t help the piece or bring out its strengths.  It’s 25 years since it was last done at the ROH.  I can’t see this one coming back and hope we’ll get a different production in less time than that.

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