Idomeneo, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, November 2014Posted on 4 November 2014
The story of a man who promises to sacrifice the first person he meets on his safe return home, if only the god will rescue him, was imported to Greece from the Ancient Near East. It appears for instance in the Biblical story of Jephthah who made such a vow in order to defeat the Ammonites (Judges 11), reprised here in a Greek myth about the return of Idomeneus, caught in a storm at sea on the way home to Crete after the Trojan War.
Rather than allowing knowledge of such ancient ideas to inform this new staging, Austrian theatre director Martin Kušej and his production team have brought the whole thing into the second half of the twentieth century, complete with hippies and gun toting goons suggesting a central European regime behind the old Iron Curtain. This milieu is closer to the producers’ own world, with added features such as air pollution in the first part of Act II when the city appears to be cursed. After the yellow pollution the stage is bathed in an antiseptic white, and the sexily-dressed Elletra seduces Idomeneus’s son Idamante, though he quickly zips up his trousers as the brass sounds. The intellectual level of this production might appeal elsewhere in Europe, but is not quite the thing for a sophisticated London audience.
The singing on the other hand was wonderful, as was the playing of Mozart’s music under the baton of French conductor Marc Minkowski, making his Covent Garden debut. As Ilia, the Trojan princess loved by Idamante, Sophie Bevan looked beautiful and sang divinely, with a lovely purity of tone on her soft notes. As her rival for Idamante’s affections, Malin Byström gave a superb portrayal of Elletra, looking gorgeous and singing with huge dramatic intensity.
Idomeneus himself was strongly and rather nobly sung by American tenor Matthew Polenzani, with Argentinian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli as a forceful, good-looking yet slightly unevenly sung Idamante. And what a pleasure to hear the glorious voice of French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace, with his accordion and eye patch. Graeme Broadbent sang strongly as the Voice, and Polish tenor Krystian Adam sang well as the High Priest, fully entering into the director’s conception of this role in his leather coat, drainpipes, gold necklaces, long hair and grinning histrionics.
Idomeneo is an opera for which an abundance of excellent music is available, and this production ended with a postlude in which pseudo-intellectual words about utopias, revolutions, rules, the soul of the people, and the sign of Pisces appear on the front drop. After that the stage turned to reveal various tableaux, including kids carrying guns, the high priest and his hippies, and people covered in what looked like chalk dust. Glorious music but what pretentious hokum.
The huge number of supernumeraries, who did important things such as waving fishes around like toy aeroplanes while the chorus sang Placido è il mar from the orchestra pit, presumably increased the cost of this co-production with Opéra de Lyon and the Flemish Opera of Antwerp and Gent, and the director looked well satisfied at the end though appearing confused by the negative audience reception. It was his first taste of Covent Garden, and those I met who left in the interval hoped it would be his last.
Performances continue on various dates until November 24 — for details click here.