Monday 17 November 2014

Opera by numbers - Covent Garden's new Idomeneo

Idomeneo - picture copyright ROH Catherine Ashmore
Idomeneo - picture copyright ROH Catherine Ashmore
Mozart Idomeneo; Polenzani, Fagioli, Bevan, Bystrom, dir Kusej, cond Minkowski; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 15 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Missed opportunities in regie-theater production, but fine music making

Idomeneo, Mozart's first mature opera, has not done well in London theatres. The Royal Opera's last production, directed by Johannes Schaaf, was in 1989 and was generally unloved and not revived. Engliish National Opera's first ever production, by Katie Mitchell in 2010, seems to have had a similar fate. Both were very much Director's Opera. and now the Royal Opera House's new production directed by Martin Kusej falls into a similar category. The production debuted on 3 November 2014 and we saw the performance on 15 November with Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo, Franco Fagioli as Idamante, Sophie Bevan as Illia, Malin Bystrom as Elettra, and Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Arbace, conducted by Marc Minkowski. Set designs were by Annette Murschetz with costumes by Heide Kastler.

The basic idea of Martin Kusej's production was intriguing, using the plot to examine the dynamics of regime change with Idamante's death a political act rather than a religious one. The new narratvive has a strong dynamic, but the problem is that Idomeneo is not primarily narrative driven, it is an opera seria albeit a very later 18th century one. Comentators still seem embarrased by Mozart's fascination with the opera seria genre (he returned to it with aparent alacrity in the last year of his life with La Clemenza di Tito). Despite much tinkering, the opera seria of Mozart's day remained a drama of interaction and releactions, rather than action and narrative.

Martin Kusej's narrative change altered the ballance of these relationships. Mozart's music for Idomeneo examined his personal dilemmas with the conflict between personal and public, and the music is profound and sympathetic, quite far from a totalitarian dictator. To make this work in his new narrative, Martin Kusej had to come up with a new imperative force and turned the High Priest into a sinister eminence grise with a gang of heavies.

All thiis might have worked if what we saw on stage had been gripping theatre. But it wasn't. Murchetz and Kastler's designs mixed sludge coloured costumes with a black and white set. With sets on a revolve, Martin Kusej seemed to use set change as a tool to enliven the production. The rest was equally full of lazie regie-theater short hand. Krystan Adam's High Priest was a long-haired, leather-clad ex-rocker with a bunch of long haired Hells Angels as heavies. Idomeneo's troops were all black clad and wearing black sun glasses. Ideas which were hardly radical 20 years ago.
The prooduction itself was full of significant signs and portents; the stuffed shark, the dropped plastic bags, the white clad children who followed Elettra, Arbace as a woolly hatted drop-out clutching a piano accordion. Only, their significance eluded me and simply caused pusslement.

Sophie Bevan and Matthew Polenzani - Idomeneo - picture copyright ROH Catherine Ashmore
Sophie Bevan and Matthew Polenzani
picture copyright ROH Catherine Ashmore
The personen regie was indifferent with far too much walking around to no purpose. During Ilias scene wiith Idomeneo, Sophie Bevan seemed to be coming on to Matthew Polenzani's Idomeneo and he responding. Yet nothing further was made of this. But Martin Kusej generally took a rather dodgy attitude to his two female soloists. Both Sophie Bevan and Malin Bystrom were dressed in a highly sexy, provocative manner revealing a great deal of flesh, as the men were not. It is surely against character for Ilia to prowl round the stage flashing both cleavage and legs. Mozart's Ilia is demure.

Martin Kusej took advantage of the work's concluding ballet to subvert the opera's message. Whilst the final scene might have been a celebration of Idamante's rue, the subsequent senes, tableau vivants, showed the development of Idamante's rul as repressive as his father's was.

Musically the performance was strong. Matthew Polenzani made an impressive Idomeneo, powerful yet touching in his conflict. He sang Fuor del mar well, so it was a shame we got Mozart's simpler version. Martin Kusej had been insistent that Idamante be played by a man As the Munich version was used, this meant it was taken by counter-tenor Franco Fagioli. On disc he has been dazzling in slightly earlier soprano castrato repertoire. But singing in a relatively large theatre, at modern pitch, his voice sounded under pressure with an intense vibrato to the fore. It was simply not an heroic sound, nor did he seem able to give the music an adequate sense of line. Frankly, the role would have been faar better served by having a female mezzo-soprano who can act. Stanislas de Barbeyrac was truly impressive as Arbace, particularly in his one aria. He offered up some of the most impressive Mozart singing of the evening and I hope we hear him again soon.

Fanco Fagioli and Sophie Bevan - Idomeneo - picture copyright ROH Catherine Ashmore
Fanco Fagioli and Sophie Bevan
picture copyright ROH Catherine Ashmore
Sophie Bevan as Illia provided highly poised and shapely singing with a supreme sense of line. Her account of Illia's music had a limpid purity somewhat at odds with her visual appearance. Malin Bystrom made a vivid and passionate Elettra, with a thrilling account of her final aria. She has quite a fine slimline voice and I have to confess that I rather prefer my Elettras to be on the dramtic soprano side.

Mark Minkowski brought  good historically informed sensibility to the work without it feeling dogmatic and he appeared to have a good relationship with the Royal Opera House orchestra. The results were lithe ad stylish, and very involving with speeds fluid without feeling driven. The forte piano continuo from Francesco Corti made a strong contribution; the instrument was large and raised up in the pit.

As ever the programme book told us the publisher of the edition used, but did not detail what we were hearing. Idomeneo is an opera which requires countless discussions about what to include and what to miss out but none of this was shared with the audience.

At its best Director's Opera can offer striking and intriguing images, remarkable insights and gripping theatre. The problems was that Martin Kusej offered noone of these and was very much a mizzed opportunity.
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