Friday, 7 November 2014

What's with the shark ? Mozart Idomeneo Royal Opera House

What's the fuss about the shark ? Mozart Idomeneo at the Royal Opera House last night (I was at Boris Godunov on Monday)  Very musically satisfying, with Marc Minkowski at the helm. The infamous shark appears for only a few moments, borne aloft by the chorus, yet everyone seems fixated  by it. Surely London audiences must be aware that Idomeneo is set on the island of Crete, in the middle of the Mediterranean.  Who is the God of the Sea? Neptune (Poseidon), upon whom Crete is utterly dependent. Neptune, being the God of the Sea, is often depicted with fish and with waves.  Hence, too "the sign of Pisces" - a fish. The Cretans were bereft when their king was lost at sea.  So when he's saved by Neptune, they think it's a miracle. Why shouldn't they hold a religious procession, parading a symbol of their God? Many other Mediterranean cultures do the same today, though the religion is different.

In this production, Neptune doesn't materialize in the midst of a thunderstorm waving a triton, but he haunts Idomeneo throughout the opera. Perhaps the mpst powerful gods are those who are invisible, conjured up in the minds of those who believe. Neptune's presence is felt, invisibly, in the music, its moods as changeable as the ocean. We hear howling winds, ominous clouds and gentle breezes, as soft and sweet as zephyrs. We only have to listen. Marc Minkowski is one of the great Baroque conductors of our time, so the Royal Opera House scored a coup getting him behind this Idomeneo.  Although the Royal Opera House orchestra isn't a period instrument ensemble, Minkowski had them playing with a proper period sensitivity. The harpsichord dominates, creating cleaner, leaner sound than one usually hears. Perhaps Idomeneo harks back to an earlier era, to Haydn, rather than to the hurly-burly of Viennese popular theatre. With this aesthetic, it might seem too cool and formal to be one of Mozart's "greatest hits",  but for those who care about music, Minkowski's approach was immensely rewarding. Yet when Minkowski took his curtain call, some smartass booed.  Some come to opera these days to bully others, not to listen to music.

Given Minkowski's  elegant touch, Matthew Polenzani's Idomeneo  was very effective. He's done a lot of Mozart, and this is the best yet. Measured, well paced and well balanced, his voice suggested a king not driven to extremes by his own flaws but by the caprices of nature. His interactions with Idamante (Franco Fagioli) felt human, as if they were real life father and son. Very good singing from Sophie Bevan (Ilia) and Malin Byström (Elettra)  Please read Claire Seymour's review of the singing HERE in Opera Today.

It is in this musical context that I think Martin Kušej's direction needs to be considered. The minimalism of the staging may enrage some, but it focuses attention on the music. The story itself supports Spartan – oops, Cretan, treatment. The people have been at war, and have suffered. In the First Act, the people are seen in pale-coloured garments, moving in stylized fashion, not unlike sculpture in Greek art. Stark black and white suggest the dilemma Idomeneo has to face. Neptune is not a benevolent god. He demands human sacrifice. Thus the red banners and blood soaked mass that extrudes from a crack in the palace walls. Anyone who's been in  a fish market can figure out what that might be. Idomeneo's disembowelled spiritually because he has to kill his own son. So much for religion. Technically, the revolving stage mechanism ) is very effective since it avoids clumsy scene changes. It's much more sophisticated than the series of boxes used in Katie Mitchell's Idomeneo at the ENO (read more here). It manages to suggest the cliffs above the beach and the marble palace in which thr Cretan royal family live. The trouble is, though, it's no fun  to look at. Perhaps it shouldn't be, since this isn't a pretty story, but it looks tacky and incomplete. the lighting is a joke./

Kušej has been played up in the media as some kind of monster, often by people who repeat what they've heard about things they haven't seen, but he's more banal than dangerous. .He doesn't take as many liberties with opera as, say, Klaus Guth, whose Die Frau ohne Schatten (more here)  changed the whole meaning of the opera, but which was wildly praised by London critics. Kušej's Don Giovanni for Salzburg was better than the soulless Sven-Erik Bechtolf production which replaced it this year (read more here)  What matters about any production is not updating as such, but how the ideas reflect the music and the drama. Kušej's Idomeneo isn't his best work, but it's more dull than enraging. Thank goodness for the music!

photo : Catherine Ashmore, 2014, courtesy Royal Opera House

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