Saturday, 30 June 2018

A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo

Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - the festival chorus (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - the festival chorus (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
With his production of Mozart's Idomeneo for the 2018 Buxton Festival (Idomeneo opens on 8 July 2018), director Stephen Medcalf is coming full circle in a number of ways. Whilst he has never directed the opera before he worked on it very early in his career, on Trevor Nunn's production of the opera at Glyndebourne in the 1980s (Nunn's first opera production) where Medcalf was a young assistant director. And Medcalf's first job as an assistant director was at Buxton, where he worked with director Malcolm Fraser (who co-founded the festival) on Kodaly's Hary Janos (with a cast which included Alan Opie, Cynthia Buchan and Linda Ormiston) and would go on to work on Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto the next year with Lesley Garrett

During rehearsal for Idomeneo, I recently met up with Stephen to learn more about this thoughts on directing Idomeneo.

Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - Stephen Medcalf (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart: Idomeneo - Stephen Medcalf in rehearsal for Buxton Festival
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
After his early period at Buxton, Stephen returned to Buxton in the 2000s to direct a sequence of Donizetti operas with Andrew Greenwood conducting, and then for Stephen Barlow (artistic director of the festival since 2011) he has directed Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Beethoven's Leonore [see my review] and now Idomeneo.

Idomeneo is an opera that Stephen has always wanted to direct, it is the only major Mozart opera which has so far escaped him. He is thrilled to be doing it at Buxton where the Opera House is a perfect size for performing Mozart. He calls Idomeneo opera seria but not as we know it. Despite the opera seria form, Mozart uses a lot of devices to make it flow, thus advancing the form and transforming opera seria considerably. Stephen sees the work as very forward-looking, anticipating Mozart's later operas, and he cites the way the storm in Elettra's heart becomes the storm of the shipwreck.


Having directed the Mozart/Da Ponte opera and The Magic Flute three or four times each, Stephen finds the seeds of all the later operas in Idomeneo, you keep hearing echoes of phrases from these later pieces in the opera. And Stephen finds it extraordinary that Idomeneo was written by one so young, given the endless links to the later operas and the real insight into the characters.

In order to keep the evening to under three hours, they have inevitably had to make cuts though Stephen feels that they have been clever about these and have created what he calls 'a very punchy evening', which he is very excited about.

Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - Heather Lowe (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart: Idomeneo - Heather Lowe
rehearsals for Buxton Festival (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Without a budget for large spectacle, Stephen feels that this avoids one of the areas where directors can come unstuck in the opera by concentrating too much on spectacular effects. Instead, he is taking a psycho-drama approach, as the characterisation in the opera is so rich he is using this to give insight into the extraordinary human characters.

Stephen points out that nowadays society is far more secular than it was in Mozart's day, and few people believe the explicit religious imperatives of the plot. Instead, Stephen is exploring the real motivation underlying the religious symbols, what they actually symbolise. He cites Idomeneo's guilt; he sends 100s of young men to their death yet his son survives, and the oath that he takes reflects this suffering. This approach takes Idomeneo into the realms of PTSD, and Stephen calls the piece a really extraordinary psychological study.

Stephen points out that people suffering from PTSD that people do hear voices, and the psychosis can lead to self-harm. In Idomeneo, Stephen translates that into Idomeneo's attitude to his son, he cannot harm himself any more so he harms his son. But Stephen is taking a non-specific approach, and it is up to the audience to decide whether Idomeneo is really possessed by the god Neptune, but by implication he simply hears voices. You don't have to deny the presence of the monster, but it is what happens inside of Idomeneo's head which really interests Stephen rather than the possibility of spectacle with the scene of the monsters.

Mozart: Idomeneo - Ben Thapa & Rebecca Bottone in rehearsals for Buxton Festival (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart: Idomeneo - Ben Thapa & Rebecca Bottone
in rehearsals for Buxton Festival (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
For Stephen, none of the characters in the opera is predictable. Ilia is a romantic, yet is as tough as old boots and resists her own sentiment, finding the courage to sacrifice herself for Idamante. With Elettra, Stephen finds it too easy to portray her as a crazy fury and harridan. Her middle aria says that she is seductive, sexy and heartwarming, whilst her two other arias suggest that when pushed to extremes she will snap, though in mitigation there is her extraordinary family trauma (with her brother Orestes killing her mother Clytemnestra in revenge for Clytemnestra's murder of their father Agamemnon). So that whilst there is almost a girlish quality to the middle aria, she snaps in the last one.

Whilst most of the characters have already gone through extraordinary suffering, which can give a schizophrenic aspect to their character, Idamante has not suffered yet and so he is the character which develops the most over the course of the opera. He starts off rather naive, he just does not understand the weight of history which troubles Ilia. Through her, he learns what suffering is, and come to understand that the only way to save the nation is to sacrifice himself. We see how he grows through the opera and becomes worthy of taking over from Idomeneo.

Stephen fell into directing opera by accident. His first job was as ASM at the Royal Nothern College of Music (RNCM). He took the job not because it was opera, but he wanted to work in the theatre and needed to get his Equity Card! At the RNCM he met Malcolm Fraser, who founded the Buxton Festival and simply fell in love with opera. This was a strong period at RNCM where the students included Jane Eaglen, Paul Nilon (who sings the title role in Buxton's Idomeneo), Louise Winter and Anne Dawson.

Having directed only plays at University, at the RNCM Stephen completely fell in love with opera as an art form, but he comes from a musical family so his love of opera is not completely surprising. He went on to do a post-graduate course at the London Drama School, but he had already formed lots of contacts including with Buxton, Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals, and he would go on to become a staff director at Glyndebourne.

Gluck: Orfeo ed Eurydice - Michael Chance - directed by Stephen Medcalf at the Buxton Festival 2014 (Photo Robert Workman)
Gluck: Orfeo ed Eurydice - Michael Chance - directed by Stephen Medcalf
at the Buxton Festival 2014 (Photo Robert Workman)
Stephen doesn't have a specific directorial style. He works with a lot of different designers and feels that a strong directorial style can often come out of the design aspects of the production. He does feel that he takes a reasonably honest approach to the works, with detailed personen regie. He prefers not to overcomplicate things or be too elaborate, with not too much hi-tech. When working with singers, he respects the vocal lines, and always starts with the music. He aims for simplicity and clarity of storytelling.

It is perhaps important to mention here that Stephen is married to a singer (soprano Susan Gritton) which gives him an understanding of what singers go through. He calls it one of the hardest jobs and points out that there is nowadays a requirement to be a first class actor and singer. He does add that there are always great voices which escape the requirement of being a good actor, but most singers are expected to be good all round. Stephen points out how vulnerable the voice is, how easily a cold, emotion or stress can affect it, not to mention the sheer effort to produce the sound. This has given him a real respect for singers.

Peter Hall, with whom he worked at Glyndebourne, was a big influence on Stephen. He learned from Peter Hall's whole approach and then worked out what worked for him. Stephen also worked on Trevor Nunn's production of Porgy and Bess at Glyndebourne, they were virtually the only two white people involved in the staging. He describes it as a very special show, getting standing ovations every night.

Stephen learned a lot from Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne, Stephen calls him an extraordinary talent both as a musician, and a human being. Sellers has the ability to charm and befriend the whole company, and would know the name for the third stage-crew from the back! Stephen tries to embrace this approach, acknowledging every single member of the company, and the fact that Stephen did two years as an ASM at the RNCM certainly influences this attitude and whilst at the RNCM, Stephen benefited from working with Tim Albery. But he goes on to add that perhaps you learn more, in a different way, from directors whom you don't respect!

Stuart Laing, Kristy Swift & ensemble - Beethoven's Leonore directed by Stephen Medcalf at the 2016 Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Stuart Laing, Kristy Swift & ensemble - Beethoven's Leonore directed by Stephen Medcalf at the 2016 Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Finally, whilst talking about directorial influences, Stephen returns to Malcolm Fraser from whom he learned the building blocks of his trade. And so, returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece with a super cast feels like a great big present.

Further ahead he has Handel's Ariodante in Passau, Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera (in a production originally at the RNCM), Carmen in Cagliari and La Gioconda.

The Buxton International Festival runs from 6 to 22 July 2018. Stephen Medcalf's new production of Mozart's Idomeneo opens on 8 July 2018 at Buxton Opera House, with Paul Nilon as Idomeneo, Rebecca Bottone as Ilia, Heather Lowe as Idamante, Madeleine Pierard as Elettra and Ben Thapa as Arbace, with Nicholas Kok conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra. Full details from the festival website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Handel's finest arias for base voice - Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Story-telling in America: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Each a world unto itself: Arvo Pärt The Symphonies (★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate, candid and completely fascinating: The Tchaikovsky Papers - unlocking the family archive (★★★★) - book review
  • Notable debuts & a veteran director: Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the Grange Festival - opera review
  • Vivid drama: Handel's Agrippina at The Grange Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut  - interview
  • Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North (★★★★½) - music theatre review
  • Home

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