Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Text: Giambattista Varesco
Conductor: Jonathan Peter Kenny
Director: James Conway
Designer: Frankie Bradshaw
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Of the operas of Mozart’s maturity those in the opera seria style lack the popularity of the comedies and fantasies, so Idomeneo, though in no way a rarity, is far less familiar than, for instance, The Marriage of Figaro or The Magic Flute.
English Touring Opera’s production makes an excellent case for the much-maligned opera seria, though in truth Idomeneo itself, written when the style was beginning to seem old-fashioned and with a composer unlikely to be bound by convention, makes an even better case. It is possible to see the bones of the opera seria style in Idomeneo – the secco recitatives where the plot is advanced and the formal arias which express emotion – but most of the recitatives are accompanied and are far from dry. In the second half of the opera the Act 2 trio and Act 3 quartet are vivid ensembles where characters’ different personal views and vocal lines exist within a musical unity, just as in operas such as The Marriage of Figaro.
The plot is typical Gods and Heroes, but the characters reveal, often with moving intensity, real and powerful emotions of love, loss and loyalty. After the Trojan War Ilia, daughter of King Priam, is a prisoner on the island of Crete. She is in love with King Idomeneo’s son, Idamante, but so is the Greek princess Elettra; Idamante loves Ilia, much to the disgust of Elettra who sees her as a slave and an enemy. Idomeneo is thought drowned in a shipwreck, but survives thanks to the intervention of the God of the Seas, Neptune. Unfortunately, he has sworn to the Gods that he will sacrifice the first person he sees on land. As always happens in these cases, this proves to be a bad idea: of course, it’s Idamante. The opera is about the untangling of these two dilemmas: the all-too-human love triangle and the need to appease a vengeful god.
In the hands of a creative team well used to opera of a slightly earlier vintage, Idomeneo emerges full of vitality and humanity with no loss of authenticity. Jonathan Peter Kenny is unafraid to take risks in his conducting, and his tangy orchestral sound features some particularly characterful woodwind. General Director of ETO James Conway never overplays his hand and puts character and emotion at the heart of everything, right from the opening where Ilia, a prisoner, in love, convinced (wrongly) that she is not loved, is revealed hunched in a corner.
The four principals are perfectly balanced, Galina Averina’s Ilia the softer-grained of the two sopranos, Paula Sides with an edgy authority as Elettra, Averina building to an understated heroism, Sides to a wonderful scenery-chewing aria of revenge and despair, a dummy run for those mad scenes that were to become the stock in trade of the 19th century soprano. Christopher Turner’s heroic tenor readily encompasses the angst of the king whose power is dying (and, maybe, his son with it) and Catherine Carby brings all the vocal attack you could want, plus emotional subtlety and the stride of a hero, to Idamante, originally a castrato role, nowadays cast as tenor or mezzo.
John-Colyn Gyeantey, another of the company’s baroque specialists, capably conflates two of Mozart’s characters, rather different chaps, but with the same vocal range: Arbace, the King’s confidant, and the High Priest. The Chorus has plenty of work to do and does it very well, all those triumphant or terrified choruses, praising, praying, yearning and warning, but also establishing roles reflecting the homelessness of the Trojans or the frustrations of the Cretans – and, among all the signs of the originality of the composer, the chorus to end Act 2, fading into an inconclusive nothingness, must be the most remarkable.
Touring nationwide | Image: Richard Hubert Smith