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.
I saw two operas consecutively at Oper Koln. First, the utterly bewildering Lucia di Lammermoor; then Thilo Reinhardt’s thrilling Tosca. His staging was pure operatic joy with some Hitchcockian provocations.
Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.
Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.
‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.
This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?
A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert. Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.
On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.
On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.
When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.
It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.
Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.
This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at ’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.
With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.
When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.
Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.
Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.
Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
A funny thing happened on the way to Andalusia.
The tale of a Syrian donkey driver. And, yes, the donkey stole the show! The competition was intense — the Vienna Philharmonic and the Grosses Festspielhaus in full production regalia for starters.
Two men, one woman. Both men worshipped and enshrined her in their music. The younger man was both devotee of and rival to the elder.
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.
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.
Emma 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.
Performances continue until July 9th