Monday 9 July 2018

Inner demons - Mozart's Idomeneo at the Buxton Festival

Mozart Idomeneo - Paul Nilon, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart Idomeneo - Paul Nilon, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard - Buxton International Festival 2018
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart Idomeneo; Paul Nilon, Rebecca Bottone, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard, Ben Thapa, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: Nicholas Kok, Northern Chamber Orchestra; Buxton International Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 July 2018 Star rating: 3.5
An Idomeneo riven by his own demons in this striking new production

Mozart Idomeneo - Rebecca Bottone - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Rebecca Bottone - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Having explored early Mozart with last year's production of Lucio Silla, this year Buxton International Festival moved to the composer's first mature opera, Idomeneo. Opening at Buxton Opera House on Sunday 8 Juy 2018, the production was directed by Stephen Medcalf with designs by Isabella Bywater, and featured Paul Nilon as Idomeneo, Rebecca Bottone as Ilia, Heather Lowe as Idamante, Madeleine Pierard as Elettra and Ben Thapa as Arbace. Nicholas Kok conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Mozart's opera was premiered in Munich in 1781, though there were only three performances, and the only other performance in his lifetime was a concert performance given in Vienna in 1786 with an amateur cast. The work has a complex textual history, the composition process was somewhat fraught and Mozart had to make significant cuts before the premiere owing to the work's length. He never made planned revisions to the work (tenor Idamante, bass Idomeneo), though he did make some changes for the 1786 performance which had a tenor Idomeneo. For these performances Buxton used the 1781 version, but trimmed to bring the running time to three hours (a single interval in the middle of Act Two after 'Fuor del mar'), and Arbace lost all of his arias.

Mozart Idomeneo - Madeleine Pierard - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Madeleine Pierard - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Isabella Bywater's striking set seems to have been partly inspired by Romain Veillon's photographs of the ghost town, Kolmanskop, in the Namibian desert which has been taken over by sand. So we had an austere classical structure with views of the sea, yet half taken over by sand. This formed the permanent set, and gave a series of striking locations for the action.

A key to understanding Stephen Medcalf's approach to the opera [see my interview with him] was perhaps that the men's costumes were all military of the World War One era. He suggests that Idomeneo's struggles are due to PTSD, and that the monster is within. Thus the work becomes about Idomeneo's struggle with the guilt he feels arising from the war, rather than an external struggle. This has the advantage that it does not require the depiction of a monster (something with which most directors and designers fail), but does place a lot of focus on Idomeneo.

Paul Nilon was superb at suggesting, from the first moment, a man wracked by guilt and each of his arias had a strong, inner intensity. This was a man struggling with demons from the first moment. That said, I am not sure the scene with the monster (depicted with Idomeneo ravening) quite worked and it left the dramaturgy of the last Act (with Idamante going off to fight the monster) a bit skew. But when Nilon was on stage he held us with the sheer power of his performance, and 'Fuor del mar' was rightly the centre-piece with a bravura yet vivid account of the aria.

Mozart Idomeneo - Heather Lowe - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Heather Lowe - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Heather Lowe gave us a real sense of Idamante's youth, this was a young man who had not yet been tried in the crucible. Lowe sang with light, flexible tone and great beauty of phrasing, yet I did not feel that she quite dug into the complexity and darkness of Idamante's journey. Rebecca Bottone made a striking impression in her first aria, giving Ilia a real feeling of haunted intensity. But did not always manage to carry this through the rest of her performance, though she sang with beauty of tone and elegance. In the rather curious second Act aria, where Ilia is expressing her gratitude to Idomeneo, we got the distinct impression that she might have been attracted to him, a very interesting slant on the dramaturgy.

Madeleine Pierard made a powerful Elettra, and thankfully she got all three of her arias. Pierard gave a performance of rare intensity and depth which lit up the stage, whether Elettra was joyful or furious, and showed what was lacking some other areas of the production. Pierard's Elettra was not simply a classic dramatic soprano performance, her middle aria was finely fluid and flexible, but in both the outer arias she brought real fire and steel to the voice, whilst nailing the coloratura. There was vivid drama too, not just in the terrific final accompanied recitative, but in the second Act where Pierard was delightful joyful about her love of Idamante.

Ben Thapa gave strong support as Arbace, though without his arias the character was just a shadow of his former self. Owing to illness, Richard Dowling acted the role of the High Priest whilst Luke Sinclair sang from the side, and Julian Debreuil was the voice of the god, here done as Idomeneo ventriloquising.

One of the fascinations of Idomeno is the accompanied recitatives and orchestrally accompanied passages, and here the cast were fully responsive to the drama giving us some thrilling moments.

The hard working chorus gave us some powerful moments, singing with full and responsive tone whilst throwing themselves into what was at times a very physical production.

Nicholas Kok and the orchestra gave us a very lithe and incisive account of the overture. The performance was responsive to the drama and impetus of the production, with some notable moments in the accompanied recitatives.

Mozart Idomeneo - Heather Lowe, Paul Nilon - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart Idomeneo - Heather Lowe, Paul Nilon - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
This was a striking production, both visually and conceptually, and combined some fine singing with moments of strong drama.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Rip-roaring rarity: Verdi's Alzira in a rare outing at the Buxton International Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra - Interview
  • Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen (★★★★★) - Cd review
  • Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance and workshops at Kings Place (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Handel & Vivaldi from Grace Davidson & the Academy of Ancient Music (★★★½) - cd review
  • The good the bad and the ugly: Susan Froemke's The Opera House (★★★½) - film review
  • Russian Romantics: music for violin & piano by Glinka, Glazunov, Cui, Rubenstein, & more (★★★) - CD review
  • Powerful & emotional stuff: Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse at RCM Double Bill - Opera review
  • What a delightful voice: getting to know the music of Francesco Gasparini (★★★★) - CD review
  • Coming into focus: Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni returns to the Royal Opera  (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • Home

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