Katie Mitchell is on record stating that Idomeneo is “very difficult” to bring off as a director. She certainly proved it with her ugly, perverse and wilful production. The slate grey sea frontcloth, visible as the audience entered the auditorium, looked reasonably promising. However when it rose, after Edward Gardner’s Beethovenian interpretation of the overture, our eyes were greeted by an ugly concrete hotel lobby which, for me, evoked chilly Scandinavia rather than sweltering Crete.
Let me state that there is no reason why Mozart’s opera could not work in modern dress given a director who trusts the material. However, Mitchell clearly lacks that necessary trust and so falls back on the curse of modern opera production – Extra-itis. Not for one minute are we allowed to concentrate on a singer delivering an aria since they are constantly upstaged by a procession of waiters, hotel guests, civil servants and drunks. It came as a blessed relief when Paul Nilon’s valiant Idomeneo was allowed to finish “Fuor del mar” (almost) alone.
For much of the time the principals barely seem directed at all leaving the less experienced floundering. Robert Murray’s blank, incipiently alcoholic, Idamante suffers particularly badly. Only Emma Bell’s monstrous Electra (played as a cross between Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Samantha from Sex and the City and Paul Nilon’s shifty (and gay in another unfounded character gloss) Idomeneo emerge as believable characters.
When an aspect of the libretto doesn’t suit Mitchell her answer seems to be to ignore it. Thus, instead of a sea monster, we get an unpleasant squall. As there is no monster Idamante cannot slay it so that part of the libretto is simply changed to a non-specific brave act of defiance. Only in the final scene does some sort of dramatic fire kindle but, even then, it is diluted by more extras.
Fortunately the music is in much safer hands. Gardner sets out his stall from the first notes of the overture. This is a big boned, extremely well played and dramatic reading. Of course this constantly contradicts the tepid drama emerging onstage but it is undoubtedly a pleasure to listen to. His accompaniment of the singers and his attention to balance (not always Gardner’s strongest point) was from my seat exemplary.
The singers are a mixed bag and the more experienced fare much better in the dramatic vacuum engendered by the director. Nilon is a riveting Idomeneo – His “Fuor del mar” taxes him to the utmost but he pulls it off and, on the first night, got the only prolonged mid act applause of the evening. Emma Bell’s spine chilling “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” is another rare moment of drama. Sarah Tynan sings beautifully as Ilia and she looks gorgeous in a series of flattering frocks but in this setting she struggles to inject any drama into the character. I have to admit to much preferring the mezzo-soprano version of Idamante and Robert Murray does little to change my mind. Often taxed by tessitura he looks uncomfortable for most of the evening and fails utterly to convince me that this is the hero to take over the reins of power in Crete.
An infuriating evening dramatically only partly salvaged by the musical content.