Monday, 9 July 2018

Review of Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Idomeneo is an opera that reveals its secrets only to the patient. Generally considered Mozart’s supreme creation in the ‘opera seria’ genre (in the formal Italian tradition), it is a long piece.

But there is a wonderful final act, when not only do we get the appearance of a sea monster but also the disembodied voice of Neptune and a near-mad scene – and then a final denouement, reconciliation and the triumph of humane and enlightened values over ignorance and fear.

The story is from the Trojan Wars, with King Priam’s daughter, Ilia, captive on Crete, loved by Idamante, son of king Idomeneo, whose army captured her … and Idamante is also loved by Elettra, Agamemnon’s daughter, who wants revenge.

Pretty straightforward as classical plotlines go, and of course it gives Mozart lots of scope for arias of passion and dramatic switches of tension.

But what about the sea monster (a judgment from Neptune, who is angry with Idomeneo and his whole nation for his failure to carry out his earlier vow to sacrifice the first living thing he saw on being delivered from a storm at sea – in fact his son)? And the disembodied voice?

Director Stephen Medcalf has come up with great practical solutions for staging these within the constraints of Buxton Festival opera production budget. The monster is seen in Idomeneo himself, in a kind of wild transformation on the lines of The Incredible Hulk (‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry …’). And the voice of Neptune comes as an oracular declaration, seen from Idomeneo’s lips but sung with echo effect off-stage.

There are other neat touches that give the outlandish story a kind of reality and bring it into the realms of psycho-drama. With a useful single set by Isabella Bywater (a two-sided building half submerged by sand … presumably the effect of a terrible sea-storm and maybe even global warming) and non-period military gear for the king, his son and other combatants, it takes on a timeless quality.

But this is also Buxton, where the music comes first. Nicholas Kok was in charge in the pit, the music was stylish and energy-filled, and the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus were both magnificent. 

Buxton did a concert performance of Idomeneo eight years ago, in Richard Strauss’s somewhat eccentric version (he wrote some syrupy music of his own into the Mozart score), but this is the first time we’ve had the original. That time the wonderful Paul Nilon took the title role, and this time he embodied it again. Almost everything depended on him, and he did not fail. Quite apart from the Hulk impression, he portrayed nobility and passion, and his ‘Fuor del mar’ aria captured a sense of survivor guilt as I think few others could. He never lost his ability to sing, and stay, in character.

Heather Lowe was an excellent Idamante, ardent and at times (rightly) piercing and powerful, and Rebecca Bottone sang with lovely tone and intonational precision – a little bit studied and static by comparison with her co-stars, perhaps, but always a joy to hear. Madeleine Pierard almost stole the show with her Elettra, particularly in her great Act two aria.

And the final act, with its ensembles and climactic sense, was, as I said, worth the wait.

Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

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