Idomeneo, Buxton Festival, July 2018

To understand the link from Handel’s opera seria to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Mozart’s Idomeneo is a key work that tackles Greek drama with knowing psychological insight.

Princess Ilia of Troy in chains, all images BIF/ Richard Hubert Smith

This sensible production by Stephen Medcalf gives clarity to the story, allowing the music to speak for itself and enhancing the theatrical aspects with a chorus performing in Greek style. In the meantime the main singers: Idomeneo, king of Crete returning from the Trojan War; his son Idamante; the captured Trojan princess Ilia; and Elettra (Elektra) princess of Argos and Ilia’s rival for the love of Idamante, produced terrific performances. Paul Nilon took the hugely demanding role of Idomeneo, which he sang for the English National Opera eight years ago, giving a powerful and well-nuanced performance of this anguished king who in order to secure safe passage home has promised the gods to sacrifice the first person he meets on returning to Crete. His great misfortune is that the first human he encounters is his beloved son, who makes it clear he has been longing for his father’s return.

Idomeneo sends Idamante away to accompany Elettra

The father desperately tries to send his son away to escort Elettra back to Argos, but his failure to carry out the assassination tears him to pieces, causing Neptune to conjure up a sea monster embodying his guilt. This apparition — unseen by the audience — renders Idamante’s trip to Argos impossible, and while ravaging the town torments Idomeneo like a raging sea within his heart. In the meantime, Ilia, in love with Idamante after he releases her from her chains at the start of the opera, begs to recognise Idomeneo as a surrogate father. In this role the charming purity of Rebecca Bottone’s singing and dreamy quality of her portrayal was a highlight of the performance.

The trouser role of Idamante was given a masculine yet sympathetic portrayal by rising star Heather Lowe, and Madeleine Pierard gave a strong account of his would-be partner Elettra, who had even packed a wedding dress in her suitcase for the return to Argos. Her final lament after Idomeneo abdicates his throne to satisfy Neptune, blessing the union of Ilia with Idamante as his successor, was a tour de force that drew cheers from the audience. And with a fine chorus, along with wonderful duets, trios and quartets under the baton of Nicholas Kok with the Northern Chamber Orchestra this was a musical treat leading the way from the earlier style of opera seria to the through-composed form of the nineteenth century.

Idomeneo alone with his demons

Stephen Medcalf’s excellent production with designs by Isabella Bywater subtly lit by Mark Jonathan gave us sea in the background and blown sand on the floor of an open building. I loved the temporary lighting effect of rendering the sand as the sea over which the Greek ships found their way back from Ilium, but alas the production will be destroyed unless storage space can be found for the sets, so see it before it vanishes.

Performances continue on various dates until July 21 — details click here.

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