Friday 21 November 2014

Idomeneo, Royal Opera, 19 November 2014

Royal Opera House
Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
High Priest – Krystian Adam
Voice of Neptune – Graeme Broadbent
Martin Kušej (director)
Annette Murschetz (set designs)
Heide Kastler (costumes)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Leah Hausman (dramaturgy)
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Marc Minkowski (conductor)
Image: ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Poor Idomeneo! Katie Mitchell more or less destroyed this magnificent yet fragile opera when she staged it for ENO. Here, when the Royal Opera at last returned to it, the musical performances proved sadly lacking, from the top down – or, better, from the pit upwards. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House deserved much, much better; so of course did Mozart. Save for some bizarrely out-of-tune trumpets, the fault lay not with the players, who indeed seemed anxious to mitigate the worst of Marc Minkowski’s incompetence. When permitted to play, the strings sounded warm and variegated and the woodwind often beautiful indeed – if hardly what one would have expected under Sir Colin Davis. But Minkowski seemed concerned not only to hurl every ‘early musicke’ cliché in the would-be treatise at Mozart but also to withdraw it not very long later. And so, the Overture opened in all-too-predictably driven fashion before suddenly being pulled around in sub-Harnoncourt, even Rattle-like, fashion. The strings were left alone for a while then suddenly prevailed upon to withdraw vibrato, especially at the beginning of the second act, and still more grievously during the atrociously-conducted ballet music. It quickly became apparent that Minkowski had no sense whatsoever of harmonic rhythm; may God, Neptune, or Anyone Else preserve us from inflicting his jejune flailing around upon the symphonic Mozart. (Doubtless he already has; in which case, we should protect ourselves from having to hear it.) Whatever possessed Covent Garden to entrust this work to him? As for the nonsensical exhibitionism to be heard from the fortepianist...
Then there was the casting. Franco Fagioli’s Idamante offered some of the worst singing I have ever heard on this hallowed stage. If incomprehensible – in what language was he singing?! – out-of-tune squawking were your thing, you would have been fine; the rest of us were left wondering why on earth a female soprano, a mezzo, or a tenor had not been engaged. (That was not the only questionable textual decision to have been made.)  Malin Byström certainly seemed to possess dramatic conviction; it is a pity she showed herself more or less incapable of holding a musical line. I am all for ‘big’ voices in Mozart, but they should at the very least be able to sing in tune. Sophie Bevan offered some beautiful moments as Ilia, though she too proved surprisingly thick with her vibrato at times, especially during the first act. Matthew Polenzani was a decent enough Idomeneo when he didn’t confuse Mozart’s style with that of Puccini. (Listen to Francisco Araiza for an object lesson here.) Although a little wayward, Krystian Adam’s reading as the High Priest seemed dramatically justified in the context of the production. Stainslas de Barbeyrac’s Arbace generally impressed, although some strange vocal colourings left me wondering quite why so many had been singing his praises quite so ardently. Sadly, and much to my surprise, the chorus was too often all over the place – and not just in terms of where it was asked to stand. What is usually a great strength of Royal Opera productions proved decidedly ragged.
Martin Kušej’s staging, on the other hand, proved a more genuinely provocative experience, certainly superior to Mitchell’s in every respect. (That, I admit, would hardly have been an onerous challenge.) A certain sort of opera-goer disdains challenge and questioning, whether to himself or to the work. So much the worse for him – or her. There were irritants, including the well-nigh unforgivable inclusion of rain (visual and sounding) during the Overture and again later in the first act. But I really cannot imagine how anyone could reasonably object to an era ravaged by war looking like – well, an era ravaged by war. Likewise, surely anyone sentient would at least question claims of enlightened absolutism, even if some might think the militaristic regime of Idomeneo goes a little ‘too far’. (I certainly do not think so.) More fundamentally, though,  Kušej’s’s concept of an island in thrall to a manufactured cult of Neptune works very well – and genuinely has one think, should one be so inclined, about issues of individual and mass agency. If Idomeneo and, at the end, Idamante is not in control, then who is? How might the wrath of the crowd be harnessed, and by whom? How does our lot compare with theirs? If not so well thought-through as, say, Hans Neuenfels’s now-classic staging of Lohengrin, some of the same ‘experimental’ questions presented themselves. The stasis of the final ballet scenes – leaving aside Minkowski’s miserable effort – might initially seem perverse, and in some senses it is, but a series of tableaux presenting ‘where we are now’, and suggesting that it equates to ‘where we were before’ actually turns out to possess considerable dramatic power. A rethinking of some elements – even just that horrible rain – would strengthen an interesting production, which was apparently booed by the usual suspects on opening night. Alas, a far more desperate need would remain for a different conductor and cast – but that can and should be arranged.