Friday 27 December 2019

Mozart - Idomeneo (Salzburg, 2019)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Salzburg Festspiele, 2019

Teodor Currentzis, Peter Sellars, Russell Thomas, Paula Murrihy, Ying Fang, Nicole Chevalier, Levy Sekgapane, Issachah Savage, Jonathan Lemalu

Medici streaming - 12 August 2019

After their take on La Clemenza di Tito in the same venue in 2017, there would have been little doubt that the 2019 Salzburg Festival production of Idomeneo would be controversial; the only question being whether it would be Peter Sellars or Teodor Currentzis who would be most wayward in their in interpretation of one of Mozart's most interesting operas. Well, it's a close run thing.

Mozart's operas are so rich in music and multifaceted in their content and themes that they are eminently amenable to deeper exploration, reinterpretation and modern revision; nothing about them has dated. As an early opera seria however, with a baroque libretto written for André Campra, Idomeneo does certainly still have one foot in a bygone age, yet it is already progressive in terms of Mozart's reworking, reinvention and humanistic outlook. Filtered through the young Mozart's sensibility and remarkable talent, all those conventional laments, jealousies, cruel twists of fate and extreme human sentiments feel vivid, alive and real.

It's so powerful an advance on the mannerisms of the past that it demands an equally imaginative, modern and humanistic interpretation in stage performance. Perhaps not everyone wants it to go as far as Dieter Dorn’s at the Munich Bayerische Staatoper or Damiano Michieletto in Vienna, or indeed as Sellas and Currentzis not unexpectedly take it here, but it's hard to argue that they don't bring a sincere response to the musical and dramatic content of Idomeneo, striving to find a way to highlight the richness of its themes and development of its characters.

Initially however, you are definitely thrown a little off-balance by the oddness of the set developed for the very specific demands of the Salzburg Felsenreitschule. Not a single object on the stage is related to the actual Crete settings of the opera, nor are they naturalistic or in most cases even identifiable. The stage on the floor of the Riding School theatre has clear plastic tubes that rise up as columns with coloured lights, the stage littered elsewhere with misshapen plastic containers, tubes and inflatable blob like creatures - perhaps a different kind of monster that is disgorged by the sea in this age of environmental disaster. The costumes of the Greeks and their Trojan prisoners is militaristic, but the coloured camouflage outfits look more like pyjamas.

As unusual as the set looks, the unfamiliar sound, pacing and rhythms that
Teodor Currentzis brings out in the period instrument interpretation of the opera with the Freiburger Barockorchester can be even more unsettling as it sounds very different here from any recording you might be more familiar with. The intention is clearly to push the range of expression that Mozart employs for this opera, marking it out as very different from the baroque works that precede it, exploiting and emphasising the dynamic that Mozart employs for this unique and brilliant work.

At times you get the impression that the intention is also to do everything possible to break away from Mozart as comfortable and easy-listening, perhaps over-emphasising and deliberately pushing against the familiar. It's slow when you expect it to be faster, fast when you expect it to be slower, aggressive when you would expect merely forceful, but it never seems to work against the intent of the work. It hints rather that all might not be as it appears on the surface of the moral, political and romantic dilemmas of each of the characters whose lives have been thrown into turmoil under the curse of Neptune; absolutes and certainties - being saved from the dead, feeling secure in love, family loyalties - are all indeed turned on their head.

What Currentzis and Sellars do however is force you to reconsider the work in new terms, not rest on the certainty of familiarity, but be challenged afresh by every scene, every aria and recitative, every single note, trying to hear what is really being expressed in the melody, the tempo and the instrumentation - the fortepiano notably playing a larger role here than in any version of this work I've heard before.

If you can put up with Peter Sellars's more annoying mannerisms - the choreographic ritualised steps and semaphore arm signals (which are at least better than park and bark performances) - his direction of the internal nature and conflict of the characters is interesting. It's almost what you would expect to find in The Magic Flute: characters out of balance, seeking to find an emotional equilibrium as well as find an accord with the forces of nature and their place in the world, seeking wisdom, seeking answers, seeking peace and willing to endure suffering and trials for it. It does show that Idomeneo is practically a prototype for Die Zauberflöte (With Electra a furious Queen of the Night and Neptune a lesson-giving Sarastro), and in that respect the treatment is thoroughly Mozartian.

Not that some sections of the Salzburg would notice. When it comes down to who upsets them most, the director traditionally gets it in the neck and Currentzis's eccentricities and indulgences are overlooked. In truth, neither are entirely successful and it comes across as a little over-laboured, over-intellectualised, existing in some theatrical vacuum that doesn't entirely connect with Mozart's Idomeneo on a relatable and instinctive human level. It's a fascinating account nonetheless of a magnificent, deeply beautiful work, one that is emphasised by some fine committed singing performances, notably from a sweetly lyrical Ying Fang as Ilya and a fiery Nicole Chevalier as Elektra (almost stealing the show at the finale), but all of the performances impress, including Paula Murrihy as an intensely sincere Idamante and Russell Thomas as a warm and troubled Idomeneo.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele