English Touring Opera’s Splendid Account of Idomeneo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Idomeneo: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera / Jonathan Peter Kenny (conductor). Hackney Empire Theatre, London, 8.3.2019. (MB)

ETO's Idomeneo (c) Richard Hubert Smith
ETO’s Idomeneo (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Director – James Conway
Designs – Frankie Bradshaw
Lighting – Rory Beaton

Ilia – Galina Averina
Idamante – Catherine Carby
Idomeneo – Christopher Turner
Arbace, High Priest of Neptune – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Elettra – Paula Sides
Voice of the Oracle of Neptune – Ed Hawkins

The greatest miracle in operatic history? On balance, I tend to think so. The distinction of Idomeneo’s forebears, be they operas of Mozart, Gluck, or anyone else, ‘reformist’ or otherwise, is too readily overlooked. Nevertheless, the leap from La finta giardiniera to Idomeneo remains a challenge to explain – or, better, a mystery at which to marvel, in which to rejoice. I remember, as an undergraduate, once noting an examination question with a quotation something along the lines of ‘It is impossible to explain the quantum leap Wagner took from Rienzi to Der fliegende Holländer,’ followed by the injunction, ‘Nevertheless, make the attempt.’ Something similar might be said here, and Wagner is surely the only comparable case; I wonder, though, whether Idomeneo might not offer a miracle still greater.

Speaking of miracles, English Touring Opera does not come so very far off with a production and performance that, considered as a whole, mark the finest I have seen. We do not live in a golden age of Mozart stagings, nor do we live in a golden age of Mozart conducting; most likely, such golden ages never existed in the first place. There are exceptions, though, just as there most likely always have been. Idomeneo nonetheless seems to have proved particularly unlucky – or perhaps I have been particularly unlucky with it. If Jonathan Peter Kenny’s direction of the keen ETO Chorus and Orchestra occasionally seemed to err a little on the bright and bubbly side – this is, after all, a work as much in the tradition of tragédie lyrique as anything else, and one Mozart wished, in the case of subsequent revision, to take further in that direction – then there remained, once past the strangely perfunctory opening bars, much to admire. Admirably flexible, there was enough in Kenny’s conducting to convey the dramatic power and dazzling originality of Mozart’s intimations of so much nineteenth-century practice: orchestral colour (yes, with roots in Gluck, even Rameau, yet peering forward to Weber, Berlioz, and beyond), and both a shorter- and longer-term harmonic strategy, the latter married to Wagnerian dissolution of formal boundaries and consequent alternative, often sonata-led constructivism, that at the very least rival Don Giovanni. Slight roughness around the edges was a price well worth paying for such musico-dramatic commitment.

Much of that came, of course, from the singers, more than a match for any other cast I have heard in the theatre. Christopher Turner’s Idomeneo was certainly the best I have heard: vulnerable, thoughtful, utterly secure of line, and possessed of all the necessary vocal firepower, wisely deployed. Galina Averina and Catherine Carby made for a beautifully matched, yet also contrasted, Ilia and Idamante, moral examples through struggle, without a hint of didacticism. Paula Saides’s Elettra proved little short of sensational, an object lesson in the combination of line, colour, and dramatic involvement to create in time something so much greater than the sum of its parts. John Colyn-Gyeantey combined the thankless role of Arbace with the slight role of the High Priest. A little confusingly, the roles were elided rather than simply sung by the same artist, but that was not his fault. Coloratura was, throughout the cast, deployed not only with accuracy but with meaning; much the same might be said of ornamentation.

James Conway offered a typically resourceful production: not only, of course, for the Hackney Empire, but for a host of theatres up and down the country, many of them in towns that will otherwise see and hear no opera all year. He proceeded from trusting the work, from seemingly – however much of a theatrical illusion this may be – permitting it to speak for itself. Costumes, lighting, facial expressions, especially from the chorus of Trojans and Greeks, hinted at the political backdrop, without reducing the work to the all-too-easy, if understandably appealing conception of a ‘wartime drama’. A Mediterranean, even Cretan setting was likewise apparent, without dominating or overwhelming. This was above all a drama of sacrifice, in the line of Antoine Danchet’s original Idomenée at least as much as the Abbé Varesco’s revision (much transformed by an often frustrated Mozart). Lest that all sound a touch too werktreu, an excellent twist, drawn out of the drama rather than imposed upon it, was brought to us in Elettra’s final attempt to hold Ilia hostage, perhaps even to slaughter her.

The only real disappointment one might have entertained lay in the considerable cuts visited upon the score. If I could live with them, I suspect anyone of good will would also have been able to do so. Richard Strauss, after all, conducted far more drastic surgery, especially to the recitative, eliminating the harpsichord entirely – alongside, of course, acts of wholesale recomposition. Might I have preferred to hear a more ‘complete’ version, leaving aside for the moment the lack of what we – or Mozart – might consider a definitive text? (Many would consider the Munich ‘original’ preferable to the single Vienna performance; I should broadly, not without qualification, agree.) Of course. That, however, is quite beside the point. Within all manner of unavoidable constraints, not least the needs of touring, it would have to have been this, something like it, or nothing at all.

That ‘this’ emerged superior to any other Idomeneo I have experienced in the theatre thus says all the more, given its regrettable – in a utopian sense – constraints. Magnificent, musically and dramatically, though the ballet music may be, we could hardly expect the company to stage that too. Martin Kušej’s 2014 Covent Garden production, sadly let down by atrocious conducting and a still more atrocious Idamante, offered a one-off solution of no dance whatsoever, a provocative frieze of shell-shocked regime change; such, however, is hardly a negative coup de théâtre gladly to suffer repetition. There is often much to be said for straightforwardness; there is pretty much everything to be said for conviction. This production and these performances offered both – and more.

Mark Berry

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