Idomeneo: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1780)

Mozart: Idomeneo

★★★

(Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 3-24 November 2014)

The one with the shark

There’s something rather exciting about going to see a production which has divided opinion as starkly as this new staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo. There has been at least one one-star review and one five-star review, but most critics seem to come down somewhere in the middle, struggling in a sea of interesting ideas which never quite come together. I sympathise with them. There were certain things I liked very much and some things I found self-indulgent and silly, but my overall impression was that it was a mixture of promising concepts which lacked the Promethean spark to bring them to life.

In my thoughts below I’ll be referring quite a lot to the production of Idomeneo performed in Salzburg for the Mozart Festival in 2006, which I watched on Sunday night as last-minute prep. It makes an interesting comparison. But for now, get yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine and let’s focus on the London version.

Written when Mozart was 24, with a libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco, Idomeneo takes place on the island of Crete at the end of the Trojan War. The king, Idomeneo, has been away fighting at Troy for ten years and, in his absence, his son Idamante has grown up and become a man. Too young to remember his father properly, Idamante can only see him in the traces of the oppressive regime he has left behind: the kind of society where Trojan refugees, snatched from a shipwreck, have been cast into prison as enemies of the people. And Idamante believes a better world is possible. He has fallen in love with one of these Trojan prisoners: no less than Priam’s fugitive daughter, the beautiful Ilia, who is disconcerted to find herself returning Idamante’s love.

But nothing is that easy (it’s an opera, after all). Idamante is already promised to Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, who has come to Crete seeking sanctuary from the horrors of her native Argos; and Electra has developed an all-consuming, jealous passion for the young prince. She seethes at the thought that Ilia is stealing him away; but there is nothing she can do. Even as they’re told that Idomeneo is on his way home, a storm arises, and the next news comes that all the king’s ships have been lost. Idamante is horrified at the thought he has come so close to regaining his father, only to lose him again.

While wandering on the shore, he discovers a stranger: a man washed up from the sea. He offers him hospitality, but is confused by the stranger’s hostile attitude. The stranger, for his part, is stricken by the kindness of this unknown young man; because the stranger is Idomeneo, saved from the sea by Neptune in answer to an impulsive, horrific vow. Idomeneo has sworn that, to save his own life, he will sacrifice the first person he meets on the shore of his native land. And the gods, who do enjoy their little jokes, have brought him face to face with none other than his own estranged son.

Idomeneo’s shame manifests itself in coldness; while Idamante is dismayed that the father he’s dreamed of is so distant to him. Ilia, who has hoped for happiness, finds her future cast into doubt when Idomeneo decides to save Idamante by sending him away, with Electra, to rule with her in Argos. Of all the characters, Electra is the only one who looks set to get her own way; but the gods don’t like to be cheated. As Idamante and Electra prepare to leave for Argos, Neptune unleashes a terrifying vengeance on Crete, laying waste to its people and drenching the land in blood. To Idomeneo’s dismay, he must again contemplate the horror of sacrificing his own innocent son to placate the gods.

IdomeneoIlia-Idomeneo

It’s a powerful story and offers a neat bookend to the sacrifice of Iphigenia at the beginning of the Trojan War. Needless to say, the production doesn’t stick to the historical period: no chitons here. Based on what I’ve heard about Martin Kušej over the past week, I was actually expecting the production to be a lot more bizarre than it was. The action unfolds in a timeless war-ravaged Mediterranean state which teeters on the brink of political implosion. Kušej’s vision makes itself felt in the dark, threatening tone and in the way that religion is a means of repressive control rather than the expression of divine will.

In the Salzburg version, Neptune himself is an omnipotent, chilling presence; but here the gods are absent. Their grim thirst for blood is embodied by Neptune’s High Priest (Krystian Adam): an ominous, lurking libertine in a black leather coat who seems to be pulling the strings of the whole tragic puppet show. As I understood it, the High Priest is anxious that Idamante’s liberal rule might threaten his own hold over the people and so he joins with the forces of repression in an attempt to preserve his own power. This is faith as mind control and nothing proves that so much as the bit with the shark. The shark I could handle, more or less – it was making a tangentially interesting point about religious extremism and the fear that can compel people to worship – but the problem is that the shark has already become a bit of a cult comic element. When it appeared, the audience laughed. It undermines the seriousness of what the production’s trying to do. And I didn’t understand the two scenes with the ‘crowds’ standing around holding fish. Maybe there was some profound meeting to it that escaped me (‘cod philosophy,’ I noted to my friend), but you’ve got to be careful, especially in England, to mind the boundary between creative provocation and just being daft. And those scenes crossed it.

The first half didn’t impress me much. The staging was static and the singers spent too much time standing still looking uncomfortable with their arms at their sides. Despite flashes of red, the costumes and set were rather monochrome and it all made for a rather ponderous experience. All the singers initially sounded rather muted, swamped by the orchestra (this seems to happen a lot; maybe it’s just the operas I choose, or maybe my ears). They all got stronger as time went on, but the first act was a bit of a struggle; and that’s a shame. The first few arias in Act I can be powerhouse displays of emotion and drama, but unfortunately no one here was able to wring the same passionate engagement from the music as the team in Salzburg did. And the fact that everyone had trouble makes me think that it’s not the singers themselves at fault.

Malin Byström’s vampish Electra had moments of very impressive power in her voice; Sophie Bevan tackled some very pretty Mozartian music without letting go of the sense of Ilia’s inner tragedy; and Matthew Polenzani caught my attention at the end of his Neptune aria with a heart-rending cry about the implacability of fate. The stand-out performance, however, was Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Arbace: his powerful, effortless voice reached right up into the amphitheatre and every word was crisp and clear: he won the audience’s hearts not only as a singer but also for his role as a hapless Everyman. The designers didn’t do him any favours by giving him a bobble hat and an accordion, which made him look more like a kooky hitchhiker than a man whom a king would ask for advice.

Nor did I understand why his Act III aria has been moved into Act II. De Barbeyrac performed it very well, but it doesn’t make sense to have Arbace offering up his life to the gods to save his prince when he hasn’t even been told about Idomeneo’s vow. (That wasn’t the only illogical moment. For example, Idomeneo swears to sacrifice the first person he meets on the shore. In this version, that’s the High Priest himself, who comes running to the king with tales of Idamante’s excessive liberality.)

As most of you will know, my friend and I had gone to hear Franco Fagioli’s Idamante. In the first performances, this role was sung by the castrato Vincenzo Del Prato; Mozart later transposed it for the tenor voice and, ever since then, it’s been sung by either tenors or mezzos. I think I’m right in saying this is the first time a countertenor has tackled the part and, in retrospect, it strikes me as an odd and rather unforgiving choice. Nevertheless, Fagioli definitely had an impact on those unfamiliar with his voice:

Overheard by my friend in the ladies’ loos
during the interval:
‘Do you think he’s a real castrato?’

Knowing what he can do with his voice, though, I felt there was something strangely constrained about Fagioli’s performance. He sounded as if he wasn’t being allowed to venture outside the mid-to-upper part of his very large range, and consequently the notes lacked the wonderful warm resonance and the power that usually underlies his singing even at highest pitch. It made me think, to my surprise, that Idamante isn’t actually so good a role, especially for someone like Fagioli who thrives on playful improvisation: not something one can do with Mozart, I’ve heard, because the music is so complex that it demands complete subservience.

Like all the singers he had moments when he was stranded statue-like in the middle of the stage, but Fagioli has always been a good actor and, since I was lucky enough to have opera glasses, I noticed his subtle reactions to those around him. From the moment his eyes meet Ilia’s across a crowded prison, you believe that Idamante is captivated by her: his eyes keep drifting back to her when she’s on stage and their tactile duets together convey a genuine sense of romance.

IdomeneoIdamante2 (2)

Unlike the Salzburg version, though, this one undermines the love story. Why are Idamante and Ilia in love? Is there really such a thing as love at first sight? Or have these two young people, both desperately looking for a way out of their situation, confused love with alliance? If Idamante really does love Ilia, how on earth can we justify his ambivalent reaction here to Electra as she seduces him? I’d thought that Idamante was meant to be impervious to her charms, but this one was rather too ready to respond; it was my first inkling that perhaps this was a darker (and more interesting) young hero than the one I’d seen in Salzburg.

The second half perked up: I don’t know what did it, but I suddenly found that the ideas which had whipped around so wildly in the first part came together into a coherent dramatic push. There were also fewer fish. Suddenly the story began to make sense as a struggle between the ambitions of father and son. Idomeneo’s intransigence provokes the wrath of the people and the only way to bring about peace is to bow to the irrational fury of the masses (riots and guerilla warfare take the place of the famous sea monster here as the plague of Crete).

All this came together, rather impressively, in the sacrifice scene. And here too, for the first time in the show, my friend and I saw flashes of the Fagioli we know and love. Though his singing was still reined in, he suddenly came to life as an actor and his performance invested this whole scene with an intense, knowing cynicism which was entirely absent from the Salzburg version. His Idamante staggers in, exhausted, blood-drunk, having risked his life to save his people from their own rage; and yet, in his moment of triumph, he finds that his father is determined to carry out his primitive vow of sacrifice. He sings the requisite lines about being glad to offer up his life to the one who gave him life, but the delivery is laced with bitter irony. At one point he simply sinks to the floor and laughs at the whole stupidity of the thing, unable to deal in any other way with the horror of the situation.

And – I wondered later – perhaps this Idamante has already sold his soul, conniving in the popular uprising. Perhaps he’s already agreed to become king to quell the chaos; already accepted that his father will have to be removed to make the peace complete. The final scene takes that irony further. Idomeneo sings his aria in which he abdicates power to Idamante and begs the people to love and obey Idamante as they would him; he speaks of the royal wedding about to take place and invites the people to join him in celebration. In the Salzburg version it’s a cuddly, sunny piece: the prelude to a happy ending. But here Idomeneo sings his aria alone, on an empty darkened stage, beaten and blinded, his bloody eye-sockets covered with a stained bandage; he’s already halfway into madness, belatedly showing fatherly affection for a son who is no longer there – who no longer cares – who might even have been complicit in his punishment.

And that idea is reinforced by the final dumbshow, which presents us with the happy couple poised on a spill of white silk, like the figures on a wedding cake. But darkness gnaws at the edges. Idamante fidgets; runs an uneasy finger round his collar; reaches to steady himself against the wall and tries desperately to scrub away the blood that comes off on his hand. The turntable rotates, gratingly slowly – presenting us with angelic children dressed in white and casually toting machine guns, to represent the future Crete has chosen for itself – and turns again. This time the white silk is drenched in blood. Idamante holds his crown loosely in his fingers; he glances sideways at the stiff, frightened Ilia; while on either side of them the High Priest and his minions are arrayed along the blood-stained walls: the true victors and the true rulers. (There were more fish after this, which I wish hadn’t been there: it undermined what could have been an immensely powerful and unsettling final scene.)

I was on tenterhooks to see what the audience would make of it. The applause, initially polite, rapidly became enthusiastic: all the principals received a warm response and I was deeply happy to hear cheers for Fagioli, who seemed to feel that all had gone well because a broad grin scarcely left his face during the curtain calls. There were standing ovations scattered throughout the audience and afterwards the mood was one of intrigued debate: if nothing else, this production makes people talk; it makes you think about the story and the characters and why they do what they do – and anything that provokes discussion is a good thing. I feel that the production did have weaknesses which can’t be overcome unless Kušej is willing to relinquish some of the fish imagery, and I don’t think the show is kind to its singers, who all seem both vocally and physically restrained at times, but it isn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d feared from some of the reviews.

Fagioli has taken the brave step of being one of the first countertenors to challenge mezzo dominance of primo uomo roles in this country, and he’s done that in one of our most daunting venues. It wasn’t going to be easy for him, coming up again a rather conservative audience, and unfortunately neither the role nor the production allowed him to shine as I know he can; but the key thing is that his performance has got people talking (I didn’t hear any criticism) and he’s opened up their minds to the possibility of something new. I hope that he, or others, can find a way to take advantage of that in the future. Maybe next time he can sing Xerxes – I was listening to Crude furie earlier today and that’s got his name written all over it…

41 thoughts on “Idomeneo: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1780)

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you very much, Andromeda! Sorry I did get slightly carried away but it's a very interesting production for all its flaws. Nevertheless it's a hefty post. I feel I should be standing at the end handing out chocolates to anyone who made it through… 😉

  2. dehggial says:

    Cool, I was eager to see what you'd think. I agree this isn't the best role for Franco; it's a bit odd in general. However you might be surprised that, for me, the weak link in the Salzburg production you reference was Kozena's Idamante (she's just not credible in boy roles and her singing rather bland). But I'm not much of a fan of that production in general (aside from Harteros' Elettra) and I say that as a pretty big admirer of Vargas. It looked good without saying much.

    The strength of this one is indeed the ending and the fact that makes people think deeper about the story. That's why I like Kusej, even when I don't agree with all his choices. However here I think he was very deliberate about the ridiculous angle.

    I guess your initial quote in relation to Franco tells you everything you need to know about some of the people who frequent ROH. The other day at Cadogan Hall I actually overheard a conversation about music as opposed to about silly things. It was a first in a while.

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    When I get round to the Salzburg version, you'll see that I agree with you about that Idamante. She comes across as slightly more powerful in some moments but as a friend pointed out to me last night, the DVD would have been made with microphones and edited and so forth, so it's not a fair comparison. And she doesn't really work as a man which, as you know, is one of my performance bugbears. However there was a lot about that production that I did like. I liked their Ilia; I *really* liked their Electra; and I thought it was a wonderful conceit to have Neptune actually present for so much of it. I felt greater sympathy for Vargas's Idomeneo than I did here: in the ROH version there is very little warmth about him, whereas Vargas pulls off some very good reaction shots in the Salzburg version which make his inner torment very plain.

    If I'd actually seen the Salzburg one in the theatre, no doubt I'd have been really peeved because that walkway around the orchestra pit means that much of the action takes place in the far distance, but that's the glory of DVDs and close-ups. It's a very different production to this one – it's not saying anything as interesting or profound – but for all that it's more cheerful and upbeat and so I think it makes a good balance.

    I said to my friend it was a good thing I wasn't with her in the interval, because I'm not sure I would have been able to resist getting involved in that conversation, and the poor woman would still be there now.

  4. dehggial says:

    I like Siurina quite a bit, she's one of the best Ilias, true. Maybe I was too hard on it all last night 😉 Warmth is most certainly one of Vargas' qualities, his characters always come off as caring and soulful. I thought his singing wasn't exactly Mozartean, but, to be fair, I go back on forth on how much I care about “true” Mozartean singing.

    In short my main beef is with the production not being that interesting. I did too dislike the stage. I kept waiting for one of the singers to fall in! Eh heh. Something similar happened last month at I due Foscari. One of the singers was suspended in a cage above the stage for good lengths of time and I worried something might happen and he'd hurt himself.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh goodness, so there's 'Mozartean' singing as well as 'Handelian' singing? I am such a newbie… But yes, regarding the walkway there was one moment when Electra was inching her way round in that rather fabulous dress, and I started to get very worried for her.

  6. Justy says:

    This is actually the very first part of the too long comment 😉

    After a first quick exchange of thoughts on FB I was very kindly asked to share my thoughts and ideas as a comment to the blog post, so here we go 🙂 Though I have to admit that after one and a half weeks some memories have sadly already started to fade and I wish I was able see this production once again (not giving up hope of a radio broadcast completely just yet).

    Firstly, referring to what was overheard in the ladies’ room: I’ve been going to concerts of and listening to countertenors for a few years now and also been talking to people totally unfamiliar to this kind of music and voice about it (and exposing them to it as well), so I’ve heard it all… the somewhat embarrassed giggles, the gay or straight questions, the comments questioning manhood etc. In that situation, I think I would have probably laughed out loud or made a bit of an ambiguous, cheeky remark – all very un-British I suppose *lol* However, it reminds me of what Xavier Sabata said in a recent interview. He said to be a countertenor, the following three things are important:

    1. it must feel comfortable in the voice
    2. one must love the repertoire
    3. a strong personality is absolutely essential to withstand what you are going to face as an artist in this field

    What also comes to mind is an interview from Karlsruhe with Franco Fagioli in which he speaks about castrati and how the people went to see them to view a sensation, for the freak factor – and compares it to people today going to see a man singing (or merely screaming) high notes without paying much attention as to whether it sounds good or not (there’s a video on YouTube and he also mentions it in an interview with Opéra Magazine I think).

    It’s been dazzling and most interesting just how many different views and opinions this production has evoked! I already noticed it on opening night when we exchanged our first thoughts – we all seemed to have seen a different performance! One liked the conducting, the next hated it, one liked a singer, the other one found this particular singer quite weak, one found the production interesting, the next found it too fishy 😉

    Don’t want to be too nit-picky, but is Idamante really already promised to Elettra at the beginning of the opera? I thought she was just in love with him (and obviously hoping to become queen eventually) and only when Idomeneo wants to get Idamante away from himself and Crete, he and Arbace draw up the plan to send the two back to Elettra’s home island? That’s how I understood it from reading the libretto, might well be wrong though.

    You write “Based on what I've heard about Martin Kušej over the past week, I was actually expecting the production to be a lot more bizarre than it was” – exactly my thoughts on opening night! I had braced myself for much more… more blood, more graphic images, more drastic (inter)action of the actors/singers. Or have we already seen too many movies, too much bad news on TV?

    The audience laughed in the shark scene? Not on opening night if I recall it correctly. At least no one around me. As you say, this kind reaction undermines the idea of the production..it’s not intended to be funny…

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you! I can think of no one better qualified to respond to this post than you, because other people might not be aware how much you studied before going to see Idomeneo – watching other productions, reading and rereading the libretto and so forth.

    As I've mentioned in a couple of other posts, reactions to the castrati seem to have been very mixed (and I speak of England here): men probably did go for the ‘freak factor’, as you call it, and indeed the snarky, rather mean responses at the time, both in text and image (satirical cartoons etc.) were from men. Women on the other hand seem to have been fascinated in a very different way by the androgyny of the voices and the potential for low-risk love affairs. 😉 Ironically the responses you list above, related to countertenors, are exactly the kind of responses you see to the castrati in the 18th century. Plus ca change

    But one would hope that, the more we hear countertenors taking these roles in English opera houses, the more people will look beyond the spectacle of it and will start judging them with a finer balance. After all, I've only been (really) listening to countertenors for three months, but because I've listened to them so much – and because I've had extremely good guidance from you and the others – I'm starting to be a better judge of quality. But I'm encouraged by the fact that, having had absolutely no existing interest in opera of any kind, I've been so won over by this field. If that can happen to me, then it shouldn't be anywhere near as difficult for people who are more familiar with opera and classical music.

    I certainly had the impression that Idamante is informally betrothed to Electra – I'd assumed she was just waiting for Idomeneo to come back to make it official. It's not so much anything that is *said*, so much as the emotional undercurrents that I've seen in the two productions – Salzburg and here. Otherwise I'm not sure how you explain her sense of entitlement to him, and why he sometimes seems a little guilty about his feelings for Ilia (though, to be fair, that comes across more strongly in the Salzburg version than here). But hey, what do I know?! You're the libretto supremo so I think I'm going to go with whatever you say on that score. 😉

    They did laugh at the shark. I'm sorry. English audiences: no sense of occasion. I think everyone was on tenterhooks waiting for it – it was the main thing people would've retained from the reviews – and when it appeared there was scattered laughter. Not guffawing or anything like that, but a definite ripple of chuckling through the audience. As I said to H at the time, the shark could potentially turn this production into a cult hit. (All may not be lost!) But it does change the dynamic. And I wonder whether Kusej misjudged the English sense of humour slightly in that respect: we're faintly childish in our humour, after all, and a giant rubber shark is hard to take seriously.

  8. Justy says:

    I found the ladies ok, though I had hoped for more power and madness from Elettra and the voice didn’t really convince me (could have been opening night nerves) while the acting was alright, though it could have been more intense for my taste. Ilia was ok, but I got distracted by her dress which displayed two significant body parts a bit too prominently, at least for row A *lol* Her Zeffiretti sadly didn’t really draw me in, I was watching Minkowski more in that aria. Polenzani was better than I had feared, but didn’t really wow me, and his acting was the weakest of the cast at least for me. He had some strong moments though. But I know I’m a bit difficult to please, so don’t take this too seriously 😉 I still had a lovely evening despite not being totally overwhelmed by the voices.

    Absolutely agree with your opinion on Stanislas de Barbeyrac, he was a really positive surprise and brought one of the very few goosebump moments which are one of the reasons I go to the opera. I found him convincing in all aspects, very beautiful voice which I would definitely like to hear again (and he’s a tenor! Very rare case for me *lol*). According to the libretto, Arbace already knows about the vow and that the victim is Idamante at the beginning of Act 2, long before Idomeneo makes the vow public. So moving the aria is not that illogical. It was a shame though that he only got to sing that one aria, even if that is the case in most productions. Referring to illogical moments, and the thing with the priest: maybe priests are not sacrificable (does this word exist?)? *lol*

    There have been many speculations about Arbace’s outfit and the accordion. I wrote my take on it on FB the other night, and will just copy it here: he reminded me of the lost (homeless) figures one sees on our streets nowadays too, they look strange, out of this world, sometimes with an instrument or a different gadget that we find odd. And their clothing isn't really orderly and their health doesn't seem to be the best either. Arbace is somehow torn, a bit of a dropout of this society, maybe he’s lost orientation..he wants to be loyal to Idomeneo who he thought lost out at sea, but there is now also Idamante who seems to be the better leader and Arbace gets in between the two. He also does not belong to the mainstream people who worship the fish (= symbol for Christian belief)…it's difficult…*lol* You know, these “creatures” sometimes seem to hide behind their oddity..I find it a strong moment when Arbace takes off his glasses, he looks different and it's like he sees more clearly now or comes out of his hiding..or does this now sound too strange?

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    I'm glad that wasn't just me, because I got very distracted by Ilia as well, in a way that I'm sure I shouldn't have been. Yes, Electra could have been more powerful. Mind you I was interested in the way that the children in white were deployed in her first aria: while they certainly weren't furies, there was a sense that these were the potential future children she feared she was missing out on, now that Idamante was fixated on Ilia instead. I think your point about Polenzani is absolutely fair. He didn't have the depth or complexity that one could make of an Idomeneo.

    For Arbace, really? I thought there was that point where Idomeneo comes to Arbace and asks him for advice, and tells him about the vow, and Arbace is horrified. According to the libretto, that's in Act III or at the least very late in Act II, isn't it? It's after that when Arbace sings his aria offering himself instead. Here the offering came before the telling; and I maintain that felt weird. Plus, I'm not going to let them off about the priest. If Neptune is demanding a human sacrifice of the first person you meet on shore, and that person happens to be the priest of Neptune, I would personally see that as an immensely significant coincidence. Ultimately it probably all comes down to the year-king, sacrificial aspect of primitive Greek culture (see Mary Renault's The King Must Die). Kings were certainly sacrificial in prehistoric Greece; perhaps priests were as well.

    I like your thoughts about Arbace, especially the contrast between seeing / not seeing; but I maintain that his characterisation is too confusing for a general audience. It's true that this version places Arbace more squarely between Idomeneo (to whom he owes loyalty) and Idamante (to whom he's closer in age) but I think the costume and accessories were confusing – perhaps too self-indulgent on the part of the art-director.

  10. Justy says:

    Here's an English version of the libretto and at the beginning of Act 2 there is a scene between Idomeneo and Arbace in which they discuss what to do. You're right about the High Priest, it is illogical (but sadly I don't really recall the scene..)

    I still like Arbace and his costume – it may be weird and not quite comprehensible, but hey, this is art, theatre, opera, does everything have to be clear? See, we are still discussing it, thinking about it, it's in our minds days after…so it did have an effect. In contrast, I haven't been thinking much at all about that Cenerentola I saw last weekend…nothing in there that stuck 😉

  11. The Idle Woman says:

    First of all, I need to hear more about that Cenerentola because I think I missed out on your comments first time round… Can you email me about it? And thanks for the libretto link. But I am now confused: I swear that the scene which appears in that link at the beginning of Act II is the scene which appears in the ROH production *after* Arbace has sung his aria. Maybe I was just so wowed by the shark that my comprehension of Act II and the early part of Act III got totally scrambled. In any case, it didn't make sense to me at the time… Does anyone else remember what order those things happened in? Because I thought that Arbace sings – cuts his arm – Idomeneo comes in and binds his arm and, while doing so, breaks the terrible news about what he's done. Apologies if I have just got the whole thing completely confused and probably it really doesn't matter…

    No, stuff doesn't have to be absolutely clear, you're right… but I'm waving the flag for the people who go to the opera as newbies or without much preparation, and who are easily baffled. Like me. Maybe there's a golden mean between being creative, and doing things just to get a cool effect, without really coming up with a reason why it would make sense. Oh I don't know. I'm English. Regie productions confuse me. *Sighs*

  12. Justy says:

    On opening night, I didn’t quite get the meaning of the last phrase of the message (“In the sign of Pisces”) that was displayed at the beginning of the ballet, so I tried to find out more and also posted that question on FB. Nicholas did some research and wrote this: “Astrologically I believe the ancients were living in what was known as the age of pisces. We are now transitioning into the age of Aquarius (as the music Hair told us in the 1970s). The ancient world was considered Pisces (which makes the whole Jesus as a fisherman and all the symbols of fish associated with him really interesting).” And actually, the fish is a quite common Christian symbol (though not always perceived as such). I’m sure you have seen that sign and maybe just didn’t notice it as such?

    So, I interpret Kusej’s fish as (Christian) belief and each single person has its own fish, its own belief that he or she worships, but it is nonetheless a mass phenomenon, an everyday thing that isn’t really questioned – at least that’s what I got from the scene in which the people come with their plastic bags (that you can find everywhere, in masses, and nobody thinks about it) and unwrap their fish..Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?

    From my seat, the staging didn’t look that static and the singers didn’t sound that muted – although sitting directly behind the orchestra is usually not the best place either. However, I found the pianoforte in the recitatives rather disturbing. I know a pianoforte is original, but it was often too loud and it wasn’t really a support IMO.

    Comparing a live experience in an opera house with a DVD recording is difficult as the DVD is usually a best of of several performances, there are microphones all over the place and the sound is engineered (e.g. Artaserse was broadcast on Mezzo TV, the same material was used for the DVD and the sound is significantly different) whereas being a spectator in an opera house brings in totally different parameters, such as the seat one sits in (e.g. in Karlsruhe I noticed moving a few metres already made a difference), the mood/condition one is in on the night etc.

  13. The Idle Woman says:

    Speaking as an art historian, the Christ / fish symbol is quite a common one – you are absolutely correct (it appears everywhere from mosaics in Roman catacombs onwards) – but I didn't really feel that was what was going on here. I felt that the symbolism was being pushed beyond the usual into a realm which made it deliberately absurd and excessive. After all, Kusej is a director who wants to dismantle the notion of faith from the inside out; or so I've heard. And for the staging, I must say that the second half was much more lively than the first; had I not posted my interval thoughts on Twitter, I might well have forgotten the comparatively static first part. For our mood, I don't think that can be faulted as such. BaroqueBird can testify that I was totally psyched up before the performance and ready to be blown away. After all, I'd been listening to the Idomeneo overture on loop all day. I grant you the difficulties of comparing a DVD to a live performance; but of course I have no alternative. 😉

  14. Justy says:

    Hehe, very well recall your anticipation and excitement before going 😉 I think we were all psyched up beforehand, but maybe left not quite as wowed as we might have expected..?

  15. dehggial says:

    The Christian thing is spot on, so I'm just adding that Neptune is the ruler of the sign of Pisces and its influence is supposed to be insidious but inescapable changes (he's very passive-aggressive). He is also “about” religion (both dogma and general faith, with visions and premonitions etc.) and illusion/self delusion in general. So keep that in mind regarding this production. This is what I meant in my post about Kusej bringing the concept of Neptune in contemporaneity.

  16. Justy says:

    Mozart struggled with his first Idamante as he didn’t have the vocal qualities and acting skills he was hoping for – that’s why the part is not as beautiful as for example Sesto in Clemenza di Tito (Franco also mentions in the interview with German newspaper Die Welt today that he likes Sesto more: “Für mich selbst ist aber der Sesto interessanter, er hat zwei grandiose Arien, ist sensitiver, melancholischer. Idamante ist ein rechter Macho, immer total angespannt, das schlaucht sängerisch schon.” Rough translation: ‘But for me, Sesto is more interesting, he has two terrific arias, he is more sensitive, more melancholic. Idamante is quite a macho, always tense, that is exhausting for a singer.’

    I have to admit, when Franco started singing in that opening scene my first thought was: “Holy moly, that is HIGH!” Yes, he couldn’t show all he is capable of or show more of the colours his voice has to offer, but this is an operatic role and not a recital in which he chooses what he wants to display. I find it fascinating to always hear a slightly different voice and how he gives each character a different characterization in the voice. As I wrote somewhere else before, I could imagine that the modern orchestra with its high pitch was a reason why the voice sounded somewhat constrained and extremely high here, but being an amateur this is of course pure speculation. I still think it was a good idea to put a man into this role especially in this production (I wouldn’t want to see a girl looking like a girl put in pants trying badly to look and walk and act like a boy in this) and the countertenor also makes sense in the father-son conflict and from an acting point of view, Franco was absolutely convincing. Maybe a smaller house would do the trick? As you write, most singers were struggling, so I don’t think this is a CT issue. If someone can sing this role, it’s definitely Franco.

    Opera glasses are absolutely advisable when watching Franco on stage – there is too much detail in facial expressions, eyes, gestures etc to be missed otherwise. I really liked the opening scene as you describe it, when Idamante is captivated by Ilia. And yes, it does leave room for interpretation and speculation – why do they fall for each other? Is it just easy for Idamante to pick any of the prisoners as he pleases, does Ilia hope to be treated in a better way if she is together with Idamante or is this really pure romance? Idamante’s reaction to Elettra, however, made total sense to me: here’s a young man/boy who hasn’t got much experience yet. He might be in romantic/still rather platonic love with a girl, but show me the young man who could withstand a woman like Elettra? He tries to fight it, and in the end nothing really happens… Kusej shows us human beings with all their shortcomings..

  17. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, Mozart wasn't at all happy with Vincenzo Del Prato, primarily because the man was a hopeless actor and Mozart had to tone the part down slightly so that Del Prato didn't make a complete mess of it. That's true. Do you think Idamante is more macho than Sesto? That's interesting. Admittedly I have much Sesto to watch… but Idamante is not necessarily a macho character for me. His role is not to force others to his way of thinking, but to try to find a middle way that will suit everyone (a theme which is given an ironical take in this production, I admit).

    You are right in that Fagioli couldn't choose what he did… but there is still the choice to accept the part… and perhaps a dialogue with the conductor / director to see if there's a way to allow him to use slightly more of his voice. I am not blaming him: I hope I made that quite clear. As I think you know, I have an immense admiration for Fagioli's voice and so my question is not “why couldn't he do this?” but “why didn't they allow him to show what he can do?” Personally I don't feel that this production would have suffered any more from having a girl in the role than any other production. I say that, as you know, as someone who would always *much* rather have a man playing a man… unless it's Sarah Connolly, in which case it's a moot point.

    Interesting theory about Idamante. I got the impression he was originally putting Electra off, but then decided to sit back and see what she would do. I didn't get the impression that he was overwhelmed…. so much as intrigued to see what he could get out of the situation. Yes, he's a human being with shortcomings, but I think this production shows us an Idamante whose shortcomings are greater than usual… He's much more calculating; more Machiavellian.

  18. Justy says:

    Franco brought up the idea of Idamante being more macho than Sesto…I'm not quite sure..certainly in this production, yes, but not that much in others? I didn't think you were blaming Franco at all 🙂 There are so many questions to ask about this production…it's always a very complex process and to us in the audience many things and decisions remain hidden..(sometimes fortunately, sometimes unfortunately as there could be wrong perceptions and conclusions)

  19. The Idle Woman says:

    I suppose he does go off and kill a monster / quell a rebellion with his bare hands. That's pretty macho. Whereas Sesto is the catspaw of an ambitious unprincipled woman and doesn't really take control of his own destiny. Maybe I see where he's coming from…

    Oh! Speaking of Fagioli himself… I forgot to say in the main post. H and I were on Baroque Gesture Watch and we saw two: H also spotted that Fagioli was actually gripping his own wrists at one point as if to stop himself. I can't speak for her, but I was willing him to go rogue and throw in a cadenza or something, just to show them… 😉

  20. dehggial says:

    Sesto is without a question the more interesting character. Idomeneo as a libretto is actually very formulaic (Idamante just dutiful, Ilia just good, Elettra the token villain – so I think you guys are being too logical about her involvement – she's just there to provide self righteous rage. Pretty much only Idomeneo is somewhat multi-layered). Don't forget Mozart was only 24 when he wrote and he was too happy to get an opera commission to care about the rest, plus he didn't have much of a say. He had a lot of say regarding the re-writing of the Tito libretto.

  21. The Idle Woman says:

    Yep, as I admitted above I still have to really get familiar with Sesto so that was just the impression I got from the various summaries I'd read. But then, macho doesn't necessarily equal interesting and in fact the kind of inner torment that Sesto seems to go through would be much more interesting to me than the Idamante of the base libretto. But don't you agree that they made Idamante more interesting in this production than he is in the base libretto? They've added a whole extra level through the acting and the staging of that final bit which means he isn't just dutiful and good – which actually, rereading your comment, I think is probably what you're saying… The libretto doesn't give much colour to the characters so it's up to the production to bring them to life. (And that's why the Salzburg Idamante didn't have so much of an impact on me as a character because, for all the monster-killing and so forth, he was just a bit *too* obedient.)

    Really looking forward to watching Tito and then at least I will be able to discuss Sesto with you from a position of greater strength – though I would never *dare* argue with you too much about a Tito! 😉

  22. dehggial says:

    I was a bit amused about the “macho” talk as i don't think Mozart characters go that route. Neither Idamante nor Sesto is macho. Definitely this production made Idamante more interesting than he usually is and I would like to focus more on just that when I see it again on Monday.

    Of course, as a Tito fan I have thought tons more about Sesto than about Idamante. Some say Sesto is a proper Romantic character, in the way he's very much an anti-hero. I tend to agree. I think the greatest thing about him is his elusiveness. You can do lots of things with that – he can be more good than bad, he can be more bad than good, he can be frustratingly unreadable, he can even be almost heroic on occasion – or he can be annoying when limply played.

  23. Justy says:

    Nothing to add to your wonderful description of the sacrifice scene 🙂 Really liked the closing scene and the ballet, those were strong images – and you describe it well (though I didn’t mind the fish)

    Yes, this production makes people talk – and that’s good, isn’t it? It might not win any production of the year prizes and yes, it did have its weaknesses, but there were numerous good ideas and a storyline in there. I’ve been wondering why Franco has been reviewed so poorly in the UK press (some being unbearably insulting) whereas the German and Austrian media have been very positive. Is the UK operatic audience not ready for belcanto CTs? Or is it just the reviewers? The baroque crowd surely is more than ready for Franco as we could see at the Wigmore Hall only a few weeks ago.

    Serse? YES, PLEASE! It’s about time someone offered him this role finally!!! I love his Se bramate and his Più che penso and Ombra mai fu and Crude furie have definitely gotten his name all over them. As we could read in the Welt article today, he seems to be eyeing Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide for 2016, which would be wonderful! He sang part of this in Salzburg in June and awww… it was wonderful!

    Sorry for producing so much text…it doesn’t contain all the ideas and thoughts I’ve had, but it’s too late to think clearly.

  24. The Idle Woman says:

    I guess the reviewers aren't as used to hearing countertenors in this country… which means it would be great for them to hear more and get used to it, you're right! 😀 But I wonder whether it's also true, and perhaps more significant, that we don't get so many regie-productions in this country and so, as a nation, we have a lot less patience with directorial self-indulgence.

    I haven't read as many reviews as you have, but I get the impression that actually Fagioli hasn't been criticised as much as the production itself. There was that one review which was particularly harsh on him, in the Times I think (the one which was being discussed on Facebook), but wasn't that the one-star review? In a one-star review the critic is bound to go over the top in an attempt to make everything sound as ridiculous as possible. The other descriptions I've seen of Fagioli's performance haven't been too bad, by English press standards: someone criticised his diction, I think, but it's true that it wasn't *great* here (although, being in the amphitheatre, I couldn't really distinguish anyone's words except Arbace's).

    As I noted, the audience on our night was actually very enthusiastic and appreciative of Fagioli – except perhaps the lady in the interval, who needs to learn a little more – so I don't think English audiences per se are to blame. I really think that we need a couple more productions with countertenors in the main roles to get people used to it – to understand that it's not just a gimmick but a really serious approach to the opera – and to show off what these guys can do, I think we need something big and High Baroque to let Fagioli etc. display their amazing coloratura and cadenzas. That'll wow people. Serse is familiar to English audiences too, thanks to the ENO version (though please let's have this one in Italian). 😉

    Don't apologise for the text – I love lots of text and engagement and the chance to discuss! And, as a final point, don't forget that reviewers can be wrong – or excessively critical. There's that wonderful quote from Caffarelli's debut, which I quoted in the Handel exhibition post, for example. And please don't give up hope on the English yet. If our reaction to the castrati proved everything, it's that we'll be initially suspicious but then become immensely enthusiastic. 😉

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