Mozart’s Idomeneo at the English National Opera

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An Opera in three acts, by W.A. Mozart
English National Opera
18 June – 9 July 2010

IdomeneoPaul Nilon
Idamante – Robert Murray
Elettra – Emma Bell
Illia – Sarah Tynan
Voice of Neptune – Pauls Putniņš

Director: Katie Mitchell
Conductor: Edward Gardner

Virtue rampant. It’s something of a drawback when an opera has no characters, but this wasn’t always so. At the height of the 18th century’s classical style, an emblem would suffice, or a slightly animated statue. In Mozart’s Idomeneo something like the ideal is achieved. No one is really flesh and blood but rather personified virtues: Nobility caught between Filial Devotion and conflicted love from Chaste Constancy and Heartfelt Passion. Or as the playbill has it, Idomeneo, king of Crete, is trapped by a vow to Poseidon to sacrifice his son, Idamante, while two women pine longingly, Ilia, a captured princess of Troy, and the infamous Electra, daughter of Agamemnon. These pawns on the Greek chessboard were available to any dramatist or poet of Mozart’s day, to be shuffled through the paces of opera seria, the musical equivalent of high tragedy.

The English National Opera knew that this long admired but rarely loved work could be turned into a success. We are several decades into the revival of period style, which has brought antiquated taste back to life and even made it HIP (as in historically informed performance). London is one of the world’s HIP-est cities, and its audiences clamor for obscure stage works, not that Idomeneo is that obscure. Recordings have made it second nature to fanciers, and the sheer quality of the score insures that even moving statues can excite applause. A great tenor in the title role doubles the chances for success – both Pavarotti and Domingo recorded it. ENO, true to its adventurous reputation, hired Katie Mitchell to direct. And Mitchell has delivered with one of the strangest, most opaque, and enigmatic stagings I could ever imagine.

The prevailing notion is that no one acts out his or her emotions but sits casually lounging, usually sipping bottled water or glasses of white wine, while the world goes by, equally oblivious. The dress is modern, all in tones of gray, black, and neutrals, the setting looks like a contemporary Italian drawing room, alternating with a conference room, a rough stone wall by the sea, and the waiting area of a cruise liner. Each environment is populated by waiters in black tunics who wander constantly about doing the humdrum business of wait staff – setting the table, pouring beverages, taking away empty glasses. Every once in a while an action may vaguely match an aria, as when Electra sings of love while inducing a passing waiter to rub her feet. The whole effect is of la dolce vita without much vita, or Last Year in Marienbad with twice the bottled water.

No one around me seemed puzzled, much less discomfited. I was lost. Why would Idomeneo grieve over the doom of his son while choosing which napkin to wipe his mouth with? When the chorus is engaged in social chitchat, don’t they notice that the libretto speaks of mass carnage and blood in the streets of cursed Crete? Perhaps an excess of European innovation, which has given us Wagner’s Ring cycle set in a Metro station with Fafner the dragon as a bulldozer, and the like, has inured audiences to bafflement as a fact of nature. No, there has to be more to it. Katie Mitchell, when directing her intriguing literary adaptations at the National Theatre (I saw her versions of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot), uses video as a distancing effect. Averse to the suspension of disbelief, she likes to expose the bones of theater, negating its illusion; thus the videos, which are filmed during the performance, show the actors changing costume, sound effects being cooked up, and props being moved into place. By distracting the audience’s attention while engaging it at the same time, a dislocation takes place. You may lose track of the words, but your focus is always fixed on something. In this way the audience’s awareness is activated, and we participate to the extent that an observer can.

Clearly another variety of dislocation was intended here. Opera seria, as normally staged, is ultra static and frigid. The clichés of operatic acting (point, lurch, stagger) are diminished to near immobility. In this Idomeneo, however, there is never a moment without action, and the very fact that the action is irrelevant heightens your attention, because you cannot help searching for clues as to what is being meant. That much was easy to grasp. The more enigmatic part is whether irrelevant busyness makes you hear Mozart more or less? I think a rather fine balance was struck. The pointless pouring of wine and clearing of tables had nothing to do with the music, yet I found myself catching fresh snatches quite often, in passing moments of bemusement that suddenly turned into real attention. To offset those fresh moments, however, there was a good deal of empty fascination with the sheer oddity of it all.

Musically, the expert and energetic Edward Gardener kept a reduced orchestra (amounting to about half the usual strings but the normal complement of winds and brass) moving along dramatically. There was a harpsichord for the continuo, although in a big house like the Coliseum, I imagine it was like someone miming a harpsichordist. We had the usual half-baked “authenticity” whereby the thinnish, zingy sound of strings being played without vibrato mixed with wind players and singers using vibrato all the time, a clash of styles that nobody much bothers to notice. The overall effect was robust enough to carry the plot’s tragic import, and Mozart’s marvelous woodwind parts, so full of ingenuity and relish, shone through.

My delay in mentioning the singers indicates that they were the least interesting aspect of the production, which is mostly but not entirely true. In the absence of any more Tebaldis and Bergonzis, we have a wealth of impressive period stylists, and in every case the singers could ornament and decorate with aplomb, never imposing romantic gestures on the line. But the downside was loss of charisma – these were English oratorio soloists refitted for the opera house. As the title character, Paul Nilon had a strong but colorless tenor with a pronounced bleat and little in the way of vocal characterization beyond perpetual anguish. The Idamante of the second tenor, Robert Murray, was lighter but sweeter and more appealing. The two women did well at handling their long da capo arias with extensive coloratura, the more dramatic part going to Emma Bell as Electra. It was a well matched singing cast, yet one misses vocal thrills from real stars. In their own right, these singers were treated as stars by glowing reviews in the press.

The first time I heard Idomeneo was by a mixture of accident and subterfuge, wandering into the Royal Opera at intermission, finding a stray seat, and being fixed by the astonishing Idamante of Janet Baker (the character can be a pants role or sung by a countertenor). I am unregenerate enough to desire one great singer over a modishly good ensemble and baffling staging. For all that, the passion of Mozart’s writing never flags, which makes up for anything.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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