Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Idomeneo @ Royal Opera House, London

3, 6, 10, 15, 19, 24 November 2014

Matthew Polenzani (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Matthew Polenzani
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Audiences, despite what some critics like to think, are pretty good at getting it right; the loudest ovation at this musically strong but theatrically uneven performance went to the Arbace, the sensational French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac, whose nuanced, golden-toned, finely phrased singing of his aria was one of the many vocal highlights of this new production. Quite why he was clutching an accordion and sporting part-occluded specs, no one seems to know – Tiresias at the wall, perhaps? Or just a gentleman, as in one who knows how to play the accordion, but does not do so?

Did the audience also have it right in terms of their reception for the cast, conductor and production team? Yes and no – Marc Minkowski and the singers certainly deserved their rapturous applause, but the booing for the rest, though understandable, was perhaps a touch dramatic for what is in fact a rather dull production. It’s all so earnestly meant to shock, of course, but we have been here before, with the shade-wearing, leather-clad heavies, the copious supplies of weapons, the press-ganged chorus ‘forced’ to sing in praise of the Great Leader – and most of all the dreary homily of plus ça change suggested by Idamante’s incipiently cruel reign.

It’s very much déjà vu – the director who proclaims that he does not care what anyone says about him because we simply cannot imagine how much he has already survived (stomach-churning, eh? – Soffrir più non si può) gives us his version of a work, most of the audience hates it, and those critics who agree with them are likely to be sniffed at by others as wanting only ‘frock coats’ or productions which are ‘Zeffirelli-like.’ Most of us in fact love modern productions, and welcome both theatrical and musical insights, but although this Idomeneo is strong in the latter department, there’s precious little that’s illuminating about the staging.

The best things about Martin Kušej’s direction were that it did not force the singers to do pointless things whilst singing (save for the Ilia/Idomeneo groping, but more of that later) and that the action would probably be clearly visible by most of the house. Basic requirements, you’d imagine, but so often ignored. Unfortunately, the singers were often left a bit too much to their own devices, with plenty of wall-clutching and hand-wringing.

Musically, things are at a much higher level. Matthew Polenzani presents a noble, dignified ruler, somewhat at odds with the brutal tyrant posture into which the production strives to cram him; his singing is passionate and fluent if not quite nailing the most demanding notes, and he phrases the music with love in true Mozartean style – his ‘Fuor del Mar’ will surely grow in confidence as the run progresses.

His son was acted with real sympathy by the sopranist Franco Fagioli, but vocally he was miscast. There’s a reason why certain types of voice are generally chosen for a role, and Idamante is usually a tenor or a mezzo because the music sounds better with a ‘cello-like tone rather than that of a violin. When Mozart composed Idomeneo he used a castrato, Vincenzo dal Prato, as would have been expected at the time for such an heroic figure, and presumably the director sought to have authenticity by employing a counter-tenor here, but he went for a singer at the wrong end of the spectrum of that tessitura.

Sophie Bevan sang Ilia with touching vulnerability, as with Polenzani’s king showing us not the shallow creature seemingly dictated by the production but the conflicted noble of Mozart’s music. She was not helped by being dressed and shod as though competing in Strictly, but she gave a consummately professional performance, as is her wont. Her rival in love was sung by the fascinating Malin Byström, a superbly contrasting voice and person who presented ‘D’Oreste, d’Aiace’ with more venom than I’ve ever previously heard. She’s one of an elite group of Elettras who can make a sound that is at once a shriek and a caress.

The chorus rose magnificently above the sometimes daft things they had to do, and the same was true of Krystian Adam’s High Priest and Graeme Broadbent’s ‘Voice.’ The four solo Cretans showed the strength of the ROH chorus; if voices such as these can be drawn from the ranks, this is a chorus with few equals.

Marc Minkowski drew playing of grandeur and warmth from the orchestra, always alive to the singers’ needs and shaping Mozart’s lines with loving skill. The woodwind sections were especially fine, which brings me to two scenes which one could say typify the good and bad points of this production.

Ilia’s aria ‘Se il padre perdei’ is one of Mozart’s most beautiful – as with, say, the opening of ‘Soave sia il Vento,’ it’s hard not to get a bit moist-eyed when you hear those wind instruments ushering in the sublime melody. The music is of ineffable tenderness, breathing filial devotion and hope of paternal care – yet here, instead of the king gently taking this fatherless girl to his heart in response to her sweet assertion, he has to grope her, and she has to undulate as if she were modelling the latest slinky nightwear from ‘Victoria’s Secrets.’ It was very obvious that both of them, to their great credit, did only just enough to comply with what they had been told to do. There is nothing in the music or libretto to suggest such actions, and despite perfect singing it was hardly surprising that most of the audience appeared too stunned to applaud.

In complete contrast, the sublime quartet beginning with Idamante’s ‘Andrò, ramingo e sole’ had no superimposed agenda, and no requirement that the singers demonstrate anything other than the searing torment through which each individual is agonizing. No extraneous action, no inexplicable dancers – just four individuals expressing, in the most sublime music known to man, their fears and fragility. That’s what it’s all about, in the end – and whatever the reservations about the production, it’s wonderful to have Idomeneo back at the ROH after an absence of more than twenty years.

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Idomeneo @ Royal Opera House, London