Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo
Buxton Festival, 2018
Nicholas Kok, Stephen Medcalf, Paul Nilon, Rebecca Bottone, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard, Ben Thapa, Richard Dowling, Julian Debreuil
Buxton Opera House - 19th July 2018
As well as working on a trilogy of rare early Verdi works over the last couple of years, the Buxton Festival have also been presenting a number of Mozart's early operas that aren't quite as well known and rarely staged. Like early Verdi these can be a mixed bag but very worthwhile if you can find and show the qualities and the promise in the works. La Finta Giardiniera proved to be an absolute delight in Buxton's staging, wonderfully effervescent and playful, but Lucio Silla last year on the other hand came across as rather dour and uneventful. Idomeneo is certainly the best of early Mozart and consequently it is always worth exploring, but in contrast to some exciting and ambitious recent readings of the work elsewhere, Buxton's approach doesn't initially seem to have a great deal to bring to the work.
For an opera that is very much connected to the sea and the curse of Neptune, Stephen Medcalf's production somewhat counter-intuitively sets the whole three acts of Idomeneo within a dry room that is semi-buried in a sand drift. It's a simple enough image that does capture some sense of the domestic drama at the heart of the plot as well as the forces of nature at the heart of the work without having to be overly literal. If Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside could bring all the heart-freezing sentiments of Schubert's Winterreise fully into being earlier in the day during one of the hottest summers on record in the UK, well there's no reason why Buxton can't likewise test the effectiveness of Mozart's setting of Idomeneo. And you wouldn't bet against Mozart winning through.
With the same set designed by Isabella Bywater unchanged for all three acts, and only open doors and windows for the characters and chorus to make their entrances and exits, there was no other apparent concept or original reading applied. If there was any area in which Buxton's Idomeneo differed from other recent productions, it was that Stephen Medcalf took a rather more balanced view of the contrasting forces at work in the opera. This was one of the kindest and most gentle Idomeneos I've seen, particularly in its sympathetic treatment of Electra and Idomeneo, more often seen as the villains in the piece. That does actually place a very different perspective on the work, but you really have to wait a long time in this opera seria for its impact to come through.
In terms of characterisation and relationships and how they are expressed through the opera seria medium, the production is fairly 'dry'. Idomeneo's indecision, vacillation and agonising over his rash promise to Neptune to kill his own son as a sacrificial offering doesn't cut much ice in terms of eliciting sympathy. Idamante and Ilia's romance feels rather wet and unlikely to ever get off the ground, each of them delicately stepping around the subject. In such a situation where everyone is being 'nice' and non-committal, Electra seems to have the best potential to break through here and shake the opera up, but she too seems to take it rather philosophically, mildly disappointed at her rejection by Idamante rather than filled with righteous vengeance.
How much is down to the direction and how much down to the characterisation adopted by the singers and even how much of it is down to Mozart's music potentially being rather too generous is debatable. The singing is good all around, but little of it seems to express any real personality, particularly when you want and expect an Electra full of fire and fury. But as the opera exerts its own momentum a strong central figure does emerge, and in contrast to the tendency to portray him as weak, indecisive and no longer fit to rule, it's Idomeneo who surprisingly takes centre stage. After all, the opera is named after him, so there is merit in looking more closely at his role in the drama.
And when you're looking towards characterisation in a Mozart opera, the best gauge of that is by listening to the music that Mozart writes for the characters. Mozart at this age may perhaps not have the depth and insight into human nature that is evident in is greater mature works, but he is by no means restricted by the conventions of the opera seria format, and even at this stage shows tremendous ability to create fully rounded characters out of what is a very limited dramatic situation. And it's only fully rounded by the time you get to the end of the work. So as austere as the production and the music might seem, Mozart's personality, his innovations with the form, his undoubted attention to Gluck's reformist agenda and his own sense of melody and dramatic flow still strike you as astounding. Austere it is not, but rich in detail, alive at every moment and never indulgent.
Conducted by Nicholas Kok, the music was allowed to exert its own force and carry the momentum of the accumulated scenes. Stephen Medcalf follows this line also and allows Idomeneo's curse, fate and fall to emerge from it as the true heart of the work. Idamante's love, generosity and humanity are important and Heather Lowe gives voice to that, just as Madeleine Pierard expresses Electra's anger but doesn't allow it to overwhelm and dominate. In line with Mozart's music, it's Paul Nilon who makes every moment of Idomeneo's agony to be truly felt, seemingly possessed by an evil spirit that forces him to enact the promised sacrifice, fighting with himself and his guilt at surviving the sea-wreck. Quite brilliantly supporting this interpretation, Neptune, when he makes his appearance at the end of the opera speaks chillingly through the possessed body of Idomeneo.
If the Buxton production of Idomeneo shows us anything it's that Mozart's writing is capable of supporting other readings and interpretations, but even in its purest and most austere form and despite its serious nature, it's a rich and involving work in its own right. Allowing each of the characters voice (although Arbace is inevitably cut back here, he's far from essential to the overall impact), allowing the set pieces to have their place - the placing of the Act III quartet 'Andrò ramingo e solo' absolutely pivotal and hugely impressive here - allowing the chorus - likewise impressive - to contribute their part, is what really drives this work and makes Idomeneo an endlessly fascinating work if you stick with it and most importantly, give Mozart's music its place.
Links: Buxton Festival