Tuesday 3 July 2012

Idomeneo at Grange Park Opera

Hye-Youn Lee (Elettra), Idomeneo - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Hye-Youn Lee (Elettra)
(Photography: Alastair Muir)
Charles Edwards's production of Idomeneo at Grange Park Opera opened (1 July 2012) with the striking image of Elettra (Hye-Youn Lee) walking in front of the drop curtain (a map of the Greek islands spattered with blood), she was swathed in red and carrying a shield and axe. The shield (in the form of the famous death mask of Agamemnon) and axe were then hung up at the side of the stage, balanced on the other by an image of a Trojan warrior - the political pull of the opera being thus neatly defined. It was also visually striking in the way the Edwards combined the neo-classical costume for Elettra with symbols of savagery.

The opera opened in apparent civilisation, with Elettra (Hye-Youn Lee), Arbace (Nigel Robson), Illia (Amy Freston) and Idamante (Daniela Lehner) in 18th century dress in an elegant 18th century room. But this was surrounded by open space and a diorama representing the sea. This production, likethe previous night's Queen of Spades, used the image of a single room on a revolve. When the room turned round, a single huge image of Neptune was revealed. It was this which formed the back-drop the scenes of Idomeneo's ship-wreck. The struggle that Idomeneo (David Danholt) had with the sea were made visible by the presence of Neptune (Matthew Hargreaves) and a document containing details of Idomeneo's vow.

Daniela Lehner (Idamante), David Danholt (Idomeneo) & Amy Freston (Ilia), Idomeneo - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Daniela Lehner (Idamante), David Danholt (Idomeneo)
& Amy Freston (Ilia) (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Edwards (who both directed and designed, with costumes by Gabrielle Dalton) clearly intended some sort of subtext underlying his depiction of the Trojan prisoners. After they were released by Idamante, they  seemed to be co-oerced by priests into wearing Trojan uniform and gradually became identical to the Cretans. Idomeneo's apparently ideal society was seemingly based on force. And during act 2, as the drama developed, the veneer of 18th century civilisation started to crack. The altar to Neptune became more and more central to the action. Elettra, despite her elegant exterior, was wedded to older, bloodier ways and prepared for her departure to Argos she donned armour. 

At the end of act 2, Neptune was again a physical presence, transferring plague and pestilence of Idomeno's subjects. Though working within a relatively simple framework, Edwards created a believably horrific build-up during act 2  as Neptune wreaked havoc, this included having Neptune himself partially demolishing the rather elegant 18th century room. Edwards produced some striking images of a society brought to the brink,

Act 3 took place in a fractured landscape, all sense of civilisation departed. During Elettra's final aria, the chorus took off their period robes to reveal contemporary garb and proceeded to mob and execute Elettra, placing her body on the altar. During the final celebrations, Edwards had a visual coup. The diorama was removed, revealing the black outer walls of the stage, then the rear stage doors were flung open.  Neptune walked back, outside the theatre into the distance and Idomeneo followed him - in the distance a huge bonfire was lit. A simply unforgettable and stunning image.

I'm not quite certain what Edwards intending to convey in these last scenes, particularly with the chorus reverting to modern gear and killing Elettra, presumably a way of indicating that the cycle of violence was unceasing; was he also indicating that the Trojan prisoners never were successfully integrated into the Cretan populace but retained their native Trojan prejudices (in which case Elettra, daughter of Agammemnon, was an enemy). 

Musically and dramatically the performance was on the same high level. Nicholas Kraemer conducted a stylish account, with the English Chamber Orchestra in fine form albeit with one or two rough edges. Though the harpsichord was placed high in the orchestral pit, it's volume seemed a bit low in places and I would have liked more harpsichord in the texture.

David Danholt (Idomeneo), Idomeneo - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
David Danholt (Idomeneo)
(Photography: Alastair Muir)
Danish tenor David Danholt was an intense and tortured Idomeneo, a young-singer but a powerfully ravaged presence. His account of Fuor del mar, whilst not ideally clean, was vivid and dramatic, Danholt certainly knew both his way around the elaborate fioriture and how to use the notes to intensely dramatic effect. Danholt's performance was riveting, he never, ever relaxed; this Idomeneo was the coiled spring at the heart of the drama.

As his son, Idamante, Austrian mezzo-soprano Daniela Lehner cut a believably boyish figure. Initially her voice had the suspicion of a sharp edge in the upper register, but this thankfully disappeared as she warmed up. She sang with light, almost soprano-ish tones at time; her Idamante was a light and boyish rather than darkly intense and brooding. She was an active foil to Danholt and a very vivid participant in the drama. Her wooing of Ilia (Amy Freston) had an underlying anxious edge to it with some nicely expressive Mozartian singing.

Amy Freston's Ilia was the still heart of the production. With a beautiful stage presence and lovely limpid tones, Freston's performance was understated but highly watchable and, at times, almost mesmerising. She trained as a dancer which perhaps accounts for the very vivid way she was able to be still.

By contrast, Hye-Youn Lee was watchable for the intensely dramatic nature of her performance, you just longed for her to have more to sing. Here was a woman tortured to the point of madness, becoming almost demented with happiness at the end of act 2 and seemingly so self absorbed as to be completely unaware of the drama playing around her. In act 3 it was a long wait, but her final aria was simply stunning.

Nigel Robson was a fine Arbace, providing a noble and supportive presence and singing his aria expressively.

Matthew Hargreaves got rather more to do as Neptune, than is usual in Idomeneo; his tall stage figure ensured a commanding presence and his singing of Neptune's pronouncement at the end was similarly fitting. Iain Paton got a lot of stage time in the small role of the High Priest of Neptune and acquitted himself strikingly.

This was an excitingly dramatic evening with some fine singing, perhaps not up to the very top level of Mozartian finesse but certainly all concerned were creditable and vividly expressive. I wasn't entirely sure about some of Edwards's dramaturgy but the results were incredibly dramatic and involving and, it has to be said, far more satisfying that the last production of this opera I saw at ENO.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012

City of London Festival 2012

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