United Kingdom Mozart, Idomeneo: Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus / Tobias Ringborg (conductor), Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 27.6.2016. (CR)
Idomeneo: Toby Spence
Idamante: Caitlin Hulcup
Ilia: Louise Alder
Elettra: Rebecca von Lipinski
Arbace: Timothy Robinson
High Priest of Neptune: Robert Murray
Neptune: Nicholas Masters
Director: Tim Albery
Designer: Hannah Clark
Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Movement Director: Tim Claydon
Mozart’s first undisputed operatic masterpiece is a potentially sprawling work, whereby that fact and the composer’s fine music can risk masking the dramatic and emotional upheavals undergone by the characters. There was no danger of that in Garsington’s new production of Idomeneo where suspense and urgency are maintained by director and performers alike, and the opera is made tauter through judicious cuts and the omission of the ballet which Mozart also provided for the score.
The political and romantic plights of the three central characters (Idomeneo, Idamante, and Ilia) are brought out with musical acuity and idiosyncrasy by their respective singers, whilst Tim Albery’s production gets to the heart of the drama’s unsettling conflicts with a convex set as the unsteady ground upon which two container units have been washed up from the sea. The one slight misjudgement is the marine backdrop showing the sea’s threatening swell towards the shore with grey clouds looming overhead: as a static constant throughout the performance, paradoxically it rather downplays the sense of eddying forces besetting the Cretans instead of underscoring the turbulent dynamics of the drama which unfolds at the end of the Trojan War.
The production does not decide whether it is set in the 18th century (with the costumes of the main characters, and the décor of one of the packing crates into which the protagonists retreat from time to time) or a more up to date, but indeterminate period (with the use of those packing units, and the overalls worn by the Trojan crowd for example). Perhaps we are meant to see that dichotomy as a manifestation of the uneasy transition between the old and the new, as Idomeneo’s rule has to give way to that of his son, Idamante, by the end of the drama, and the certainties of the former way of life are precariously contained within or edged out by the realities of the new. Irreconcilable differences are further emphasised with the parting of the stage at the outbreak of the storm and plague towards the end of Act Two, and in Rebecca von Lipinski’s forceful, even hysterical portrayal of Elettra as she struggles to come to terms with her unrequited passion for Idamante. Von Lipinski conveyed the character’s deranged state of mind at the same time as maintaining superb control of the role’s taxing music.
Toby Spence interpreted Idomeneo as a nobly tragic hero attempting to stand up to fate, with a performance of considerable vocal heft. Occasionally the higher notes lie beyond what seems to be comfortable for him, but his often dark-hued singing vividly conveyed the character’s inner turmoil as he contemplates the dreadful fate of having to sacrifice his own son, Idamante. Caitlin Hulcup was eloquently expressive in the latter part as he comes to acknowledge his love for the Trojan princess Ilia. Hulcup realised the trouser role convincingly in sounding very much like a countertenor rather than a soprano, and therefore was well integrated into the varied vocal timbres on display in this performance, coming to a head in the famous Quartet of Act Three. Louise Adler’s Ilia was sweet-toned and beguiling, though also clearly a musical force capable of withstanding the onslaught of events as they conspire against the character before she and Idamante are finally vindicated. As Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace, Timothy Robinson was musically more vigorous than dramatically so, Robert Murray was a discreet High Priest, and Nicholas Masters’s brief account of Neptune would have been more commanding if his singing had been a touch more secure.
Tobias Ringborg drove an energetic performance from the orchestra and chorus, which at times is even raw. He is influenced by authentic performance practice, which often adds propulsive force to his interpretation, but he also draws back from that to allow the wider ebb and flow of the music to emerge. Idomeneo is perhaps the least loved of Mozart’s seven great operas, but this is a compelling production which makes far better sense of the opera than Martin Kušej’s production for Covent Garden in 2014, and ought to impress and intrigue committed Mozartians as well as those as yet unfamiliar with the canon of that consummate master of the musical theatre.