Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo
Theater an der Wien, 2015
René Jacobs, Damiano Michieletto, Richard Croft, Gaëlle Arquez, Sophie Karthäuser, Marlis Petersen, Julien Behr, Mirko Guadagnini
Culturebox - 20 November 2015
Idomeneo is a problematic work in the Mozart canon, belonging to his youthful period and tied to the format and conventions of opera seria. It is unquestionably Mozart however, highly accomplished and full of melody and beauty, but with a darker edge of terror here. It's the latter aspect that is an unfamiliar quality from what we are accustomed to hearing in Mozart, and it often seems to be at odds or inadequately expressed by the beauty of the music itself. Damiano Michieletto's production of Idomeneo for the Theater an der Wien seems to get more from the work by focussing on that darker side, and is assisted in drawing those qualities from a closer period interpretation of the music by René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester.
Michelietto's production relies heavily on symbolism to emphasise the darker underlying context of Idomeneo beyond even the horror of the drama that unfolds. We are reminded of the fall of Troy and the damaging consequences of what the Greeks have brought back from the long drawn-out war on the highly-stylised stage set. Boxed-in by a set of curtains, the stage is a sand and mud pit filled with the boots of fallen warriors, the characters having to pick their way through it, sticking to the ground and stumbling over the lumps and bumps of this troubled landscape. It's here that we first see Ilia and get a sense of her predicament and state of mind. She can't escape from what has happened to her home and neither the love professed by Idamante nor his freeing of her captive people are enough to compensate for that.
There is more tension between Ilia and Idamante than you would traditionally see in this work since there is another lump or bump that is significant in this version. Ilia, the daughter of King Priam, is noticeably pregnant by the son of an enemy king, which only deepens her despair and confusion. The gift she had to offer Idomeneo when he returns back from the dead after the storm at sea is a package of baby clothes and an ultrasound scan of the baby she is carrying. Any kind of joyful news, whether its the liberation of the 'refugee' Trojans, Ilia's conflicted love for Idamante, or indeed Idamante's joy at the safe return of his father, is qualified and short-lived. Particularly the latter situation, since Idomeneo has rashly promised Neptune to sacrifice the first person he meets if he is allowed to survive and reach dry land.
The characterisation is thus somewhat more consistent here with the overall tone and it's very strongly developed and explored in this production; in appearance, in singing and in how each person reacts to one another. There's a lot of pent-up tension and no respite for anyone following the harrowing war that has just ended. The tension between Ilia and Idamante for example, should be obvious considering their backgrounds, but it is only really drawn out here by the symbolism, the direction of the performers and how they sing the roles, as well as by how Jacobs handles the musical direction. The usual bombastic emphasis of the romantic melodic line is toned down by the harder edge of the period instruments, Jacobs aiming for a simpler interpretation that seeks to find a truer expression for the dramatic content which might not be quite as developed here as in other Mozart works.
The casting and singing however are of the highest order, and it's noticeably this aspect - the lyrical qualities of the singing voice and what it is capable of expressing - that differentiates Mozart's late opera seria innovations from other works in this style. All of the singers here show how good this early Mozart can be when it has the right voices assigned to the roles, and when those roles are allowed to express the characterisation that is implicit in the situations they find themselves in. It's most evident in Richard Croft's Idomeneo. Like Kasper Holten's 2014 Vienna production, the King of Crete is visibly haunted here by the bloodshed and horror of the Trojan war, tormented by gore-covered ghosts. He's like Macbeth haunted by Banquo's ghost, driven mad, stumbling and flailing, self obsessed and full of self-pity, wallowing in the injustice of it all and hopelessly ineffectual as a consequence, often symbolically found in proximity to a bed.
Croft's voice has a softness, delicacy and lyricism that matches the requirements of this kind of Idomeneo. And even with the sweetest timbre, Sophie Karthäuser too can express the conflict and boiling anger that lies just beneath the surface of Ilia, making those beautiful da capo arias really express something fundamental about herself and her predicament. Just as impressive is Gaëlle Arquez as Idamante who proves here, if it needed to be made clear, that in the absence of a castrato, a mezzo-soprano can make much more of this role than a countertenor. There's a lovely voice there to be sure, but Arquez also demonstrates confidence in her expression, interpretation and colour.
The icing on the cake her is the luxury casting of Marlis Petersen as Electra. She fully involves herself in Michieletto's characterisation of Electra as a scheming glamour puss in blonde wig, wearing glittery dresses as she teeters through this landscape of misery in high-heels and shopping bags. She's the only person happy with the turn of events, since Idomeneo is forced to send her off with Idamante into the safety of exile, trying on a series of colourful outfits in a fashion-show rendition of 'Idol mio'. There's a little thinness creeping into the middle range, but Petersen is still capable of imbuing this role with great character, and her spirited performance is exactly what is needed to give the work that extra dimension and dynamic.
While the consistency of tone is maintained right through to the climax and is perhaps even bleaker in the ruins of Crete, I'm not sure that Act III holds together quite as strongly. As is often the case these days, Electra and Idomeneo are depicted as self-interested villains - and even lovers here - who pay the price for their actions. The singing and performances at least are just as strong and convincing, Sophie Karthäuser in particular delivering an amazing 'Zeffiretti lusinghieri', Gaëlle Arquez joining her impressively for the subsequent duet. Julien Behr also shows us the value of his Arbace here. If the direction throws everything in to try to make the final act a little more exciting - including the voice of Neptune seeming to come from Ilia's womb - it at least finds the right note to end on, Mozart's long chaccone accompanied by Ilia going into labour and giving birth on the stage. As far as establishing Idomeneo's out with the old and in with the new message, this production - as elsewhere - takes everything just that little bit further than most.
Links: Culturebox, Theater an der Wien