Graham Vick Mines Mozart’s Jimi Hendrix Moment in Idomeneo

LithuaniaLithuania Mozart, Idomeneo: Soloists, Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra / Johannes Wildner (conductor), Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Vilnius, 31.5.2018. (RP)

Paul Nilon as Idomeneo © Martynas Aleksa / Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre
Paul Nilon as Idomeneo © Martynas Aleksa / Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre

Idomeneo – Paul Nilon
Idamante – Emmanual Faraldo
Ilia – Aistė Pilibavičiūtė
Elettra – Cornelia Ptassek
Arbace – Rafailas Karpis
High Priest of Neptune – Edgaras Davidovičiu
Neptune – Liudas Norvaišas

Director – Graham Vick
Designer – Paul Brown
Lighting Designer – Giuseppe Di Iorio
Choreographer – Ron Howell
Chorus Master – Česlovas Radžiūnas

The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre is a glass and metal box built in 1974 in accordance to dictates from Moscow. (Master planning was compulsory in the USSR republics.) The interior, sturdy and functional, is mostly fashioned out of wood. The spacious seats with large, solid arm rests garner my personal seal of approval. From the ceiling of the multi-story, glass-walled foyer hangs an extraordinary array of glass and metal chandeliers. This far north it was still dusk when the opera let out, so only a few were lit. It must be a dazzling sight to see them all illuminated in the dark of winter with snow on the ground.

Strip away the neoclassical elegance and grace of Mozart’s time, and Idomeneo is a pretty gritty tale, particularly when set in present day Greece. During the overture the Muslin women prisoners, all handcuffed to their beds, are systemically taken out and raped, returning battered and traumatized. The Cretan Princess Ilia alone is spared. The aftermath of the storm was total devastation. Idomeneo, the king, didn’t escape the gods’ wrath: he too was covered in grime and seaweed.

Idamante first appeared sporting a bright blue T-shirt with a dove on it, out rallying NGO workers assisting refugees. The chorus wore the same shirts: optimistic idealists doing good in the world. With a pop-art sun on a white backdrop, blue skies and colorful balloons, it had the feel of a beach party, until the soldiers arrived.

Idomeneo’s reneging on his rash promise to sacrifice the first person he sees complicated matters. Clearly the gruesome sheep sacrifice, with the children forced to watch, didn’t appease the gods. The people are angry and want to know who is to blame; a giant hand with its finger pointing at Idomeneo provided the answer.

The head scarf was the cultural flashpoint. Idomeneo removes Ilia’s at one point, only to replace it on her head. She ultimately takes it off her own terms, a sign that she is willing to integrate into a foreign culture, the price to be paid for a love that comes with a crown.

The set was designed for portability. Bleachers on wheels served as backdrops for multiple scenes. The metal beds to which the prisoners were chained reappeared as the altar on which Idomeneo will sacrifice his son and, finally, as Idamante and Ilia’s nuptial bed.

Paul Nilon is Vick’s go-to Idomeneo, having sung the part at the Birmingham Opera Company and in this production’s premiere in Göteborg. Few tenors could withstand being doused repeatedly with buckets of water during ‘Fuor del mar’, but he comes back for more. (The time to cease the dousing is probably when the audience starts to giggle.) For a king, he was called upon to do pretty menial tasks, including making the bed. There was nobility, however, in his singing, especially his seamless legato and elegant phrasings.

The finest characterization and singing came from soprano Aistė Pilibavičiūtė as Ilia. Her limpid, loving voice in ’Padre, germani, addio’, coming as it did after the traumatic opening scene, was heartbreaking. Her Prince Charming was Emmanual Faraldo, who cut a dashing figure in his military uniform but less so in his underwear as he prepared to be sacrificed at the hands of his father. He has a fine lyric tenor, shown to its best advantage in the duets he sang with Ilia and Idomeneo.

Elettra, wearing a black trench coat over a white slip spattered with blood, was attended to by five Furies (or perhaps the crazies in her brain). She spent her time either stomping about or rolling out a large red carpet. It’s a killer of a role and Cornelia Ptassek commanded it. Her tone thinned at times, but the fire and fury never wavered. After she tore through her final aria, ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace ho in seno i tormenti’, all six were dispatched with some fleet and impressive stage business.

The rest of the male roles were cast with members of the company. Tenor Rafailas Karpis as Arbace, with his distinctive vocal timbre and earnest nature, was particularly compelling. Edgaras Davidovičiu was a menacing High Priest, keen for a human sacrifice. Tall, with flowing hair, Liudas Norvaišas as Neptune simply strolled on stage in a black shirt and trousers. His resonant bass was godlike enough, but I couldn’t help but think the Vick team’s font of inspiration had run dry at that point.

Conductor Johannes Wildner’s reading of the score was refined and classical in scale, but the orchestra faced tough competition from on stage and details were often lost. The continuo playing of harpsichordist Jolanta Silkauskienė and cellist Mykolas Rutkauskas was elegant but understated. Normally these are virtues, but more flourish was needed to compete with the stage action. Bernardas Pertrauskas’ sweet violin obbligatos made their impact, partially because he stood to play them.

The chorus faced no such obstacles as they were firmly imbedded in the action. Whether triumphant or despairing, their sound was rich, full and focused. The small solos that pepper the score were well sung from within its ranks, especially the two Trojan women.

Vick had written in the program that Idomeneo was Mozart’s Jimi Hendrix moment. I’m not sure what he meant by that, but the ending was pure Age of Aquarius. With dancers in the aisles and the entire cast and audience, including Vick and his entourage, clapping along to the music, the chorus might just as well have been singing ‘Let the sun shine in’.

Rick Perdian

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