Garsington Opera House, Wormsley Park
Ilia – Louise AlderIdamante – Caitlin Hulcup
Elettra – Rebecca von Lipinski
Arbace – Timothy Robinson
Idomeneo – Toby Spence
High Priest – Robert Murray
Neptune – Nicholas Masters
Tim Albery (director)Hannah Clark (designs)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Tim Claydon (movement)
Garsington Opera Chorus (chorus master: Susanna Stranders)Garsington Opera Orchestra
Tobias Ringborg (conductor)
Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be. Even so fervent a Gluckian as I should happily admit that Mozart here goes beyond his great predecessor (and contemporary), perhaps not consistently, but Mozart is saddled with a vastly inferior libretto. In any case, that Gluckian musico-dramatic line is only one of the many facets of Idomeneo’s greatness. Its Salzburg luxuriance – yes, I know it was written for Munich; I refer here to the Salzburg Mozart as opposed to his Viennese successor – has its own extravagant rewards, even when the musico-dramatic focus is not quite so tightly disciplined as that of, say, Iphigénie en Tauride. Moreover, no Iphigenia is a match for Mozart’s Elettra. As for the orchestral and choral writing, it is surely a match for Don Giovanni; even its chromaticism, its masterly exploration of remote reaches of the tonal system, do not come so very far behind. And yet, even so fervent a devotee as I was only seeing the work in the theatre for the fourth time. Following the Vienna State Opera (2006), ENO (2010), and the Royal Opera (2014), here came Garsington Opera to the rescue.
For that, and indeed for much else, Garsington deserves a hearty vote of thanks. Musically, this was a strong performance, despite cuts that scarred the work more than I should have preferred. I can, to a certain extent, understand the temptation to make considerable cuts to the recitatives, although Mozart’s achievement here is surely not his least. To do so to the extent that the story does not quite hang together, though, is a disfigurement that seems to misunderstand the role of recitative, whether dry or accompanied, in eighteenth-century opera. One can probably fill in the gaps, but is that really the point? And unlike, say, Don Giovanni, which suffers greatly from use of the ridiculous composite of Prague and Vienna versions, this is a work for which superfluity, is part of the attraction: let us have as much of the rest as we can. I could not help but wonder whether certain arias were not present in order to facilitate a transformation of three acts into two. There will always be choices to be made, for there is no ideal ‘version’, but so far as this listener is concerned, the more one can hear, for the most part the better. The loss of the ballet music I mind more than once I did; once one realises how dramatic ballet can be, especially in the magnificent French tradition in which Idomeneo partly stands, there is no turning back. Martin Kušej’s tableau for Covent Garden is doubtless a one-off; as a visual, harrowing instantiation of regime change, it made its dramatic point to those willing to think. (Needless to say, that excluded most of the audience.) Still, we had what we had.
That is still more the case with a fine cast and chorus as here. The work of Susanna Stranders is training the Garsington Chorus had clearly been thorough and well directed; choral singing proved lithe and weighty, as required, very much in consonance with the kaleidoscope of colours offered by the excellent orchestra. In the title role, Toby Spence offered a typically thoughtful performance, quite different from any I have heard (and which I retain in my head), but that is no reason to criticise. Idomeneo’s torment was starkly apparent from the outset, visually and vocally, still more so as a broken man (and king) at the conclusion. I have heard no finer, no more moving Ilia than Louise Alder’s, taking its leave from words and music alike, and above all from the alchemic synthesis of the two. After a first aria shaky of intonation, Caitlin Hulcup’s Idamante proved equally impressive; indeed, so convincing was she as the prince that I initially thought I was hearing a countertenor. Rebecca von Lipinski’s Elettra was just the tour de force that one needs; if only the production (on which more anon) had helped give more context to her fury and equally to a humanity too often lost in performance, but not here. Timothy Robinson’s attentive Arbace, the perfect counsellor, had one miss more than usual his aria (not, even I should admit, Mozart at his greatest). Robert Murray’s relatively small role as the High Priest did not disappoint: a typically intelligent, intriguingly ambiguous performance. Even Neptune (who appears, rather convincingly, as a neo-Monteverdian apparition, rather than being mediated by an oracle) was convincingly brought to life by Nicholas Masters.
If Tobias Ringborg’s conducting had a few too many Harnoncourtisms for my taste, not least drastic, rhetorical gear changes in the Overture, then it was dramatic throughout. (I hasten to add that I have nothing whatsoever against tempo variation; but few Mozart conductors seem able to convince in that respect today, Daniel Barenboim, who has never conducted the work, an obvious exception.) Ringborg also proved somewhat of the interventionist school in his fortepiano (what is wrong with a modern piano?) continuo. Balanced against such irritants, there was no doubting the conductor’s living and breathing the music. His enthusiasm was infectious; the orchestra’s vivid response – perhaps a little vivid in the case of clattering (period?) timpani – was not the least of the evening’s special qualities.
I am afraid a ‘but’ is coming, and it relates to Tim Albery’s production. As with his Wagner productions for the Royal Opera House, Albery creates, insofar as I could discern, little beyond a string of clichés. The principal characters appear in stylised eighteenth-century dress, whilst the set designs and the chorus evoke a contemporary port. (Alas, I could not help but recall Katie Mitchell’s catastrophic ENO staging, its second act in an airport terminal – which I only later discovered had been a ferry terminal, as if that made all the difference.) There is almost always something one can do with such juxtaposition; I assumed Albery would at least do something with the large seafaring container, opened to reveal an eighteenth-century room. But no, that seems to be it: different dress, and opening and shutting of the container. It seems designed to flatter people who wanted to say they had seen something ‘modern’, without engaging with any of the possibilities of contemporary theatre, let alone presenting something as outré as a concept. The story ‘itself’ actually comes across quite strongly, despite the cuts, and that, I admit, is not an insignificant achievement. By the same token, though, it might as well have been entirely in eighteenth-century dress and in an eighteenth-century setting.