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Paul Nilon as Idomeneo [Photo by Steve Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera]
22 Jun 2010

Idomeneo at ENO

Mozart was reputedly more attached to this musical drama of hubris and honour set during the Trojan War than to any other of his stage works.

W. A. Mozart: Idomeneo

Idomeneo: Paul Nilon; Idamante: Robert Murray; Ilia: Sarah Tynan; Electra: Emma Bell; Arbace: Adam Green; High Priest of Poseidon: Richard Edgar-Wilson; Voice of Poseidon: Pauls Putniņš. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Katie Mitchell. Set Designers: Vicki Mortimer, Alex Eales. Costume Designer: Vicki Mortimer. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. English National Opera, London. Friday 18 June 2010.

Above: Paul Nilon as Idomeneo

All photos by Steve Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera


Idomeneo is a natural product of the courtly world of the Enlightenment — its hierarchies, values and symbols. It should be perfectly possible to translate this tale of vengeful Gods, proud Kings, of the passage from youth to age, and of human sacrifice, to a contemporary setting. Indeed, myth is essentially a presentation of a social worldview which, by delineating the customs and ideals of that society, can reveal how the modern world attained its current form. However, Katie Mitchell’s modern-day production so disregarded the mythic meaning of the work, and discounted the characterisation and motivation of the protagonists, focusing instead on mannered, often manic, stage business, that there was no hope that the audience might empathise with those on stage or relate to the unfolding drama.

The photographic seascape front-drop looked promising. It rose to reveal a clinical latter-day conference centre, the cool beiges and slate greys suggesting the best of contemporary Scandinavian design rather than of sultry climes of Mediterranean Crete. A panoramic window offered a glimpse of a cool, aquamarine ocean, but that’s as close as we got to Poseidon’s stormy seas in this production.

Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales, Mitchell’s frequent collaborators, may have created a crisp, serene set, but it was immediately transformed into a hot-bed of activity, as waiters, bureaucrats and assorted flunkies charged back and forth, to and fro, in an unexplained and unfathomable flurry of activity. Pity poor Sarah Tynan, who as Ilia is charged with responsibility for clarifying the dramatic situation and mythic context in her opening aria, ‘Padre, germani, addio!’; it was almost impossible to concentrate on her music, words or predicament, so distracting was the surrounding maelstrom — despite Tynan’s serene composure, tender lyricism and excellent diction.

This infuriating fussiness, and the intrusion of countless pen-pushers and attendants, continued throughout the first two Acts, undermining the mythic stature of the work. Thus, while Idamante, seated at the distant end of a twenty-foot dining table, proclaimed his love for Ilia and begged her not to condemn him for the actions of his father (‘Non ho colpa’), Ilia gobbled down her dinner as sommeliers bustled about her, topping up her wine. No wonder she didn’t take him seriously. Iadamante fared little better in his endeavours to woo her in Act 2, as smooching couples intruded on their private moment, swaying distractingly to his words of love.

Mozart’s music sharply delineates the four main characters. Ironically, while over-directing her army of extras, Mitchell left the principals pretty much to their own devices, with mixed results. The composer’s verdict on the original Idomeneo and Idamante (the aging Anton Raaff and the soprano-castrato, Vincenzo dal Prato) was that they were, “the most wretched actors ever to walk the stage”; Mitchell did little to help her actors rise above these lowly standards. While Paul Nilon as Idomeneo was imposing and credible, Robert Murray‘s Idamante was a pretty feeble hero, threatening to slip ineffectually into self-pitying alcoholism. In Act 1 Scene 2, seeking solitude at the base of a cliff, to mourn the supposed loss of his father, Idamante sat unmoving on a craggy boulder, solipsistically bewailing his grief and pain, and failed to recognise the returning king even when he was staring him in the face; the general lack of dramatic credulity made the usual suspension of disbelief even more difficult.

Only Emma Bell, as Electra, injected any real dramatic frisson; unfortunately she was played, admittedly with great panache, as an obsessive neurotic, compulsively stalking the hapless Idamante, cocktail glass clutched firmly in hand — think ‘Sex and the City’ meets the Ugly Sisters. Her Act 2 aria, ‘Idol mil’, where she professes her sincere belief that she might win Idamante’s heart once she has removed him from Ilia’s gaze, was beautifully rhapsodic, a lyric moment of illusory happiness evoking real human emotion and pathos. Mozart’s music provides a moment of genuine compassion, fleetingly humanising Electra. But, Mitchell sees things rather differently: Bell’s hopeful, rapturous arcs became orgasmic swoons, as a civil servant indulged her foot fetishism. Electra’s jealousy should inspire fear, dismay and pity; but here Bell simply became a figure of fun, slumping drunkenly on the sofa, fawning across the indifferent men, her avowals of happiness presented as the deluded idiocies of a drunken clown.

Idomeneo_Emma_Bell_Paul_Nilon_Robert_Murray_Sarah_Tynan_credit_Steve_Cummiskey.pngEmma Bell as Electra, Paul Nilon as Idomeno, Robert Murray as Idamante and Sarah Tynan as Ilia

The chorus fared little better. For most of the opera they stood stock still, seemingly bemused as to their role in the drama. They were also musically sluggish and leaden in the opening chorus, ‘Godiam la pace’, although they sharpened up considerably as the opera progressed, and there was some admirable singing from those given small solo roles — Claire Mitcher, Lydia Marchione, Michelle Daly, David Newman and Michael Selby. And, there was one neat visual touch, in Act 2, as the vicious storm breaks before the departure of Idamante and Elektra: rushing from the smart cruise boat departure lounge into the VIP area, to escape from the ensuing tempest (‘Corriamo, fuggiamo’), the huddled crowd presented a fitting visual metaphor for the dread which overcomes them.

Despite the nonsense on stage, there was some excellent singing, not least from Paul Nilon. He rose impressively to the challenges of the Act 2 ‘Fuor del mar’, when it dawns on Idomeneo that all of them will be victims of the gods. His coloratura was notable for its stamina and flexibility, both agile and imposing. Sarah Tynan both looked and sang beautifully — costumed in an array of gorgeous gowns by Vicki Mortimer. Particularly striking was her clarity and superb intonation in ‘Se il padre perdei’, as Ilia confesses to Idamante that she now considers Crete a kind of homeland. Emma Bell was fittingly psychological unhinged in ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace’, while retaining absolute vocal control and displaying great power and projection. In the original version of 1781, Idamante was a castrato role, but Mozart gave a tenor alternative five years later in Vienna when it was being performed by amateurs. Today the role is often taken by a mezzo soprano, and Robert Murray failed to convince that the tenor version is to be preferred, seeming strained and tight at the top of the register.

The minor roles performed consistently. In particular, Adam Green’s Arbace, reporting that the people are demanding that the king deliver them from the monster, presented a touching lament for a Crete that is overwhelmed with sadness in his Act 3 aria ‘Sventurata Sidon!’

Edward Gardner, despite a rather weighty start in the overture, elsewhere sensitively drew out the instrumental nuances of the detailed, at times very virtuosic, orchestral score. There was some exquisite woodwind playing in Act 2, reaching its height in the quartet for flute, oboe, bassoon and which accompanies Ilia’s ‘Se il padre perdei’. Generally, despite the stasis on stage, Gardner paced the drama with increasing assurance; this is an opera with few of the long pauses between arias so characteristic of opera seria, and it was thanks to the conductor’s sure sense of the relationships between scenes and effective handling of the transitions and overlaps between numbers, that some sort of forward dramatic momentum was suggested.

The final act, as the individual protagonists express their private sorrows, did however lose musical momentum. And it made little dramatic sense. Mitchell has dispensed with the Gods and with the sea monster. Thus, there is nothing to cause the death and destruction of which the High Priest of Poseidon reports — making his recitative meaningless. And there is nothing for Idamante to slay, no heroic deed to prompt Ilia to declare her love — only vague waffling about brave deeds. It was hard to believe that this was a man to lead the Cretan nation … better perhaps to have stuck with the original myth’s ending and sacrificed Idamante after all. In the closing moments there was one last flounce from Elektra: horrified by the general rejoicing and the prospect of Idamante seeking pleasure and solace in her rival’s arms, she shrieked, ran from the stage and shot herself in the wings. Few wept, or cared.

The disappointing lack of concordance between dramatic contrivance and musical meaning makes this an unrewarding production, one which cannot fully be redeemed by some fine singing and playing.

Claire Seymour

Performances continue until July 9th

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