(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.
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.
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…