Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo, Re di Creta
Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2022
Raphaël Pichon, Satoshi Miyagi, Michael Spyres, Sabine Devieilhe, Anna Bonitatibus, Nicole Chevalier, Linard Vrielink, Krešimir Špicer, Alexandros Stavrakakis
ARTE Concert - July 2022
There's no question that Mozart's operas are beautifully expressive of the whole range of human feelings and experience. Even at the age of 24 in his earliest masterpiece Idomeneo, Re di Creta he defies the often dry conventions and expectations of the opera seria format to create a work that imbues ancient Greek mythology with a rare humanity and authenticity. A stage director can choose to work to bring those human elements out, to interpret or reinterpret them, or they can quite reasonably rely on the music to speak for itself. That appears to be the intention of the director Satoshi Miyagi at this production for Aix-en-Provence 2022, but whether it supports Mozart's music or works against it is less certain.
There is certainly nothing wrong with updating the setting of Idomeneo or using it to express the original ideas and themes in a different context. I must admit I had my doubts about it being a neat fit for the director's proposed intention of using the Japanese wartime emperor Hirohito as a substitute for Idomeneus the King of Crete, or whether this would be in any other way meaningful or revelatory, but it has to be said that this notion never really asserts influence over the performance of the work here. What is far more significant to how the opera plays out in this production is decision to present it in a Noh drama fashion, with minimal but highly stylised sets and movements.
It certainly looks impressive, achieving the same kind of glacial quality that Robert Wilson employs in his opera and stage productions, and they are - usually but not always - none the worse off for it. Consequently, the principal performers here, dressed in stylised Japanese costumes, remain expressionless with minimal movement, often raised on their own platforms at a distance from one another. The chorus meanwhile, wearing more familiar military uniforms, merge with the sets, becoming part of them, part of the while fabric of the opera.
As far as that goes it's fine, the sets remain fluid and slowly moving and changing, ensuring that everything doesn't remain too static. If Idomeneo were a typical opera seria, it might not be enough to enliven the work and make the drama come to life, but despite the qualities of the music and the fact that it does indeed speak for itself, it seemed to me that it didn't do Mozart any favours. Not only does the intention to relate this to Hirohito and the Japanese people fail to make any impression - the opera has been staged as a modern post-war conflict much more successfully elsewhere in numerous updated productions - but it even seems to almost work against and neutralise the music, and that is not a good thing.
Fortunately it doesn't quite do that thanks to conductor Raphaël Pichon. If there are any doubts that remain about the quality of this early Mozart opera and how it stacks up against his mature works, this was certainly dispelled by the musical direction. Sure, the composition of Idomeneo can't compare to the great Mozart operas with Da Ponte, but much of what is great about those later works can already be heard developing here in a truly exciting way. It's a strong enough work on its own terms - more than strong and certainly if compared to what preceded it in opera seria, it's hugely progressive, devoid of the mannerisms and much more relatable, the characters really seeming to engage with one another and not just wrapped in their own worlds. Which, when you get right down to it, might just be what Mozart's operas are all about and what makes them great.
Unfortunately the production's stylised Noh influenced staging pushes the opera back onto those mannerisms, removing emotional connections, putting physical distance between the characters. I personally found Satoshi Miyagi's direction cold and distracting, at odds with Mozart's warm sympathetic and deeply expressive music. Worse, it simply offered no way in to relate to the plot and the drama to find a reason to care about each of the characters, much less offer an interpretation as to their motivations and behaviours as others have done, particularly into the complex nature and behaviours of Elettra and the king himself. There is no denying however that the set designs and the lighting were terrific and this was beautiful to look at, and it did suit the elegant formality of Mozart's music, if not bring out anything deeper from it.
Up until the conclusion, that is. A blood red backdrop is projected against the characters, showing them set against the horror and devastation that their decisions have caused. While mainly abstract in its human shapes and shadows cast against the horror of war, the suffering, the trauma, the eventual release and the recognition of the folly of its leaders acting like gods, it did hit home effectively, particularly with Mozart's music and with the soaring singing of the principals and chorus. It's here that Hirohito is most effectively evoked through the voice of the god Neptune, his broadcast voice coming from a record player that appears on its own raised platform. The slow and detached build-up might have been testing, but by the time the conclusion was reached, you were left in no doubt that this production did justice to Mozart, if perhaps not exactly find anything new in it.
Despite the impositions placed on the singers to remain mainly impassive and inexpressive, there was also much to enjoy in the singing. These are already challenging roles - Mozart composing this in 1781 for the best singers in Munich at the time - and the casting of the right kind of Mozartian voices is ideal for this production at Aix-en-Provence's Théâtre de l’Archevêché. If the director had little in the way of showing any nuance in the character of Idomeneo, who can be played sympathetically or as a misguided relic of the past who gets his just desserts, Michael Spyres's soft timbre brought warmth and humanity to the role. Soprano Sabine Devieilhe's singing brought more feeling and drama to the role of Ilia than the minimal direction allowed. Anna Bonitatibus as Idamante and Nicole Chevalier as Elettra were more constricted by their roles having little room for interpretation, but both sang superbly. With a cast like that and Mozart's music beautifully interpreted by Pinchon and the Pygmalion orchestra and chorus, the greatness of Idomeneo remains indisputable.