Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo
Wiener Staatsoper, 2014
Christoph Eschenbach, Kasper Holten, Michael Schade, Margarita Gritskova, Maria Bengtsson, Chen Reiss
Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 14 October 2014
Until fairly recently, you wouldn't have seen much baroque or opera seria at the Vienna State Opera - although I'm sure an exception was made for the city's adopted son, Mozart. It's only fairly recently too that we've started to see Mozart played more authentically, with period instruments and in the scaling back of the size of the orchestra. It's marvellous then to see that kind of approach applied to the Wiener Staatsoper's production of Mozart's early opera seria Idomeneo, but in Kasper Holten's producton, it's not slavishly traditional either.
It may be one thing to play it with authentic period instruments, but opera seria brings with it expectations of a lot of static standing and declaiming long arias of anguish, torment and unrequited love, with some choral praise-giving for variety. A stage production needs to find a way of making that more accessible to a modern audience, and often that involves a great deal of cutting of da capo arias and ballets. Kasper Holten's production for Vienna finds a good balance between conceptual and traditional presentation, but his cuts and reorganisation of the structure of the work could be seen as rather more controversial.
Visually, the production has a strong design and state of the art stage craft, but there's not a lot visually or in terms of direction that expresses any great insight into the characters. The opening scene has impact, depicting the captivity of Ilia and the Trojans by having them bound in thick ropes, hanging high from the rafters. Ilia descends during her recitative and aria, as Idamante arrives and announces the freeing of the captives in thanks for the safe arrival (a little prematurely) of his father, the king Idomeneo, who was believed lost at sea. There are less effects in the subsequent acts - it doesn't even bother to show the traditional storm spectacle for Idomeneo's arrival - relying more on the stylised design of an ancient map of Crete and attractive, colourful costume designs to sustain visual interest.
It's pretty to look at, but although there are a few stylised touches that attempt to get into the minds of the characters - most significantly in Idomeneo being haunted and tormented by bloody, faceless dark figures from the Trojan war in Act II's 'Fuor del mar' aria - there's not much in the way of interpretation in the traditional stage direction of the characters. That's not to say that Holten hasn't considered the work seriously and tried to find the best way of presenting it. It's clear from his efforts to restructure the work by reordering the musical numbers that he has thought about the characters motivations and has attempted to 'correct' things that Mozart himself might have done had he more time to work on it.
'Fixing' Mozart sounds a bit conceited and a foolhardy enterprise, but Holten's restructuring - although it goes a little too far in some of the cuts - does actually allow the work to flow better and make more sense. In opera seria, there can be a sense that arias have been included randomly just to suit specific performers, give each person their fair share of the spotlight, and just because an aria/lament/ballet/chorus is needed for variety at that specific point. (In the worst cases, works would even be corrupted by singers inserting their own favourite arias by other composers just to please the audience). Holten's editing is a serious attempt to bring greater dramatic and character consistency to the work, and largely, it succeeds.
The main change is in the placement of Ilia's aria and love duet 'Zeffiretti lusinghierei' with Idamante, which is removed from Act III to the opening of Act II. Coming immediately after securing the freedom of the Trojans and learning that Idamante may have lost his father, 'Se il padre perdei' consequently has more depth of feeling, and more convincing reason for Ilia to fall in love with the prince. The principal reason for its displacement however, is that it frees up the action of Act III and allows the drama of Idomeneo's dilemma to flow better without the interruption of the love scenes. This also allows the director to portray Idomeneo as a weak figure, bullied and punished by the gods, indecisive and willing to sacrifice Idamante, but ultimately unable to help his people. There is no sea monster here, it's Idomeneo who is the monster. At the end, his statue is toppled and he is unceremoniously dumped into a pit of demons with Electra as Ilia and Idamante are crowned the new rulers. Very much a case of out with the old...
Electra has always had a bit of a raw deal in Idomeneo, but in Kasper Holten's reworking of the opera she doesn't even get the opportunity to rage against the injustice of the daughter of King Priam of Troy replacing her in Idamante's affections. Act II - Scenes IV, V, and VI, where Electra comes into her own, are clearly considered superfluous to the drama and are all cut in this production. It's a pity as we seem to have a good Electra here in Maria Bengtsson, although admittedly we don't see here stretch her singing or acting abilities. On the other hand, Holten and conductor Christoph Eschenbach manage through the restructuring to include the new aria written for Idamante in the Vienna version of the work, and it fits in well.
What you also want to hear in Mozart are beautiful voices. Not so much for bel canto improvisation in the da capo arias, as much as in the purest sense of bel canto meaning sweet singing, as this is the way the characters express the sincerity of their feelings. The cast all fit this requirement admirably, with Margarita Gritskova most impressive as Idamante. Michael Schade's soft timbre perfectly suited a conflicted Idomeneo who has suffered and has depths of feeling for his son and his people, but not the strength to overcome the challenges he faces. Chen Reiss was a strong Ilia, her character benefitting most from the restructuring of the work (unlike Maria Bengtsson's Elettra), giving her arias and duets more depth of feeling. Eisenbach's reading of the score was light and refreshing, the clarity of the interpretation brought out wonderfully by the orchestra.
The Vienna Staatsoper have an ambitious and impressive programme of pay-per-view live performances being streamed this season. See the Live Programme on their website for details.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video