For a younger generation, opera is often thought to be stiff and too pompous, something removing itself from the bluntness and reality of life and staging grand performances only for a well-off audience. Falling deeper and deeper in love with the genre, the many varieties on offer keep convincing me this is an outdated opinion. Opera today takes more and more risks, and is prepared for the following consequences. The Royal Opera House’s new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo certainly divides the waters with ravings on one hand, and merciless booing on the other.
Idomeneo is one of Mozart’s first big works, tapping into the mother of opera – Greek tragedies with their emotional grandness that provokes and disturbs, with what the Greeks called ‘catharsis’ (emotional release). With many operas composed around a famous Greek myth or play, Idomeneo tells the story of the King of Crete returning from the Trojan War, to his kingdom ruled with fear and terror. To survive a great storm on his way home the gods demand a sacrifice: the first person he encounters on his arrival in Crete. Fate is cruel and the victim is his son Idamante, who’s ruled the country in his place and fallen in love with the Trojan princess and prisoner, Ilia. Idomeneo cannot bear to murder his own son and a plague haunts the city until a new order presses to confront the ways of his rule.
Director Martin Kušej directs a daring revival of Idomeneo stripping it of any pomp and distraction and collaborates with designer Annette Murschetz to create a Crete that’s bare, merciless and emotionally drained of colour. The set is a huge white box, revolving into a black and darker version when necessary, and together with the low-key costumes resembling the 70s, the image seems to reflect a world killed of imagination and freedom under the strict rule of Idomeneo’s dictatorship. It’s a politically loaded space, echoing the disfigurement of the world today and war’s harsh influence, and with an ensemble dressed in Matrix-like military uniforms, the message is very clear.
The Royal Opera House never cease to amaze in their commitment to their productions – no matter the staging or period they go all in, however the very expressionistic and bold production concept fails to really hit emotionally and seems somehow too clinical for the story. We lose the sense of Greek mythology where the gods hold man’s fate in their hands, and though the design is a very strong and effective choice in its shocking bareness – and with impressive moments of endless rain and ensemble movement on stage – it’s missing a sense of the larger than life set of ancient Greece. The modern costumes strip it of any foreign sense, and the hippie priests seem somehow misplaced. That said the backdrop for Act Three is incredibly powerful with its layers of bloodied clothing after the plague, and the final image with child soldiers resonates something very dark and unpleasant about the reality of the world today.
Mozart’s beautiful score is the highlight of the night, and is sung with passion by all performers. Sophie Bevan (Ilia) opens the night beautifully with her aria, and Matthew Polenzani’s (Idomeneo) subtle final scene resembles King Lear and is one of the tender moments of the performance. Malin Byström has some fiery moments as Elettra and impresses towards the end of the evening, but it is Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Arbace who succeeds to sing with such sincerity and feeling that it touches something beyond pleasant musicality.
I found myself closing my eyes every now and again to really appreciate the wonderful score, which is quite simply breath-taking at times. However the visual concept seemed to jar with it and was sometimes more distracting than supportive. I was missing some sensuous commitment to the staging, a more elaborate world for the important themes to unfold. However it’s great that opera is taking risks and trying to explore different ways of staging the famous works most people are familiar with – even if this time it didn’t quite resonate with some of us.
Idomeneo is playing at the Royal Opera House until 24 November. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.