Another new production at the Royal Opera House; another unsatisfying evening in the theatre. Much has been said about Martin Kušej’s new production of Idomeneo, mostly about the shark. In many respects the shark was the least of its problems.
By the interval (by which time the shark had made its appearance) I was feeling relatively well-disposed towards the production. It was one of those standard grey-white walls, unspecified-villains-in-trenchcoats, bewildered-peasantry-in-50s-ish-modern-dress affairs. Much use was made of the revolve, as different empty room configurations swung into view. The basic theme was of dystopian civilisation in which the libretto’s references to Neptune are applied to a sort of cult which demands his worship: hence the shark becomes some sort of ritualistic maritime offering. By the interval, though creaking a bit at the seams, it was holding together passably well.
After the break, as is so often the way with Regietheater concepts, it disintegrated rapidly. The High Priest who was behind all the shenanigans spontaneously repented. The big moments of chorus drama, principally the sea serpent’s intervention at the end of the first half, continued to be reduced to multiple acts of minor violence by the trenchcoated villains upon the populace. For some reason a door was blocked by a collapsing pile of bloodied clothing upon which there was much coming and going. Then, at the close, superimposed over the ballet music (for which no-one could quite be bothered to stage any ballet), we were subjected to pretentious twaddle of the highest order: some blather about revolutions fading and rulers continuing, or some such, followed by excessive cranking of the revolve as the stage became a series of tableaux vivants devoid of much immediate impact. On the train home, having read the Kobbé synopsis prior to the performance, I noted that the programme contained not a conventional synopsis, but a ‘Production Synopsis’. Having emerged from the storm, this version tells us, Idomeneo “recognises that his son is a danger to the old order. He pretends that in return for his deliverance from the storm hi must sacrifice the first human being he meets on his return…” Inconvenient things, these Eighteenth Century libretti: they must be the bane of a Dramaturg’s life.
It was somewhat ironic that the aforementioned ballet music for the last 15 minutes was when Marc Minkowski, in the pit, seemed to come most alive. Elsewhere, there had been a lack of the wonderful fizz and energy that characterises so much of his recorded output. Maybe it was the thought that Idomeneo, with its unrelentingly dark subject matter, needed a subfusc approach to the music: unfortunately, I felt it needed more lift and drive for much of the score. It might have taken our minds off what was going on on stage.
Vocally, things were another matter, and there were many delights to be savoured. Crowning them was the Ilia of Sophie Bevan, a wonderfully clear tone and presence to her singing. Opposite her, Malin Byström was a vampish and vehement Elettra, as though the wonderful Madeleine Kahn (á la ‘Clue’) had been resurrected for the role. Matthew Polenzani was tremendously effective as Idomeneo, betraying none of the ‘ageing tenor of the old school’ for whom it is suggested that the part was written (see Abate & Parker, A History of Opera, p114): this was a virile, fearsome monarch in the throes of crisis. Vocally it was outstanding in its richness and security. Stanislas de Barbeyrac made a most promising debut as Arbace, and I hope for a further encounter some time. And that leaves Franco Fagioli as Idamante, controversial casting of a countertenor as the young hero. In so earth-bound a staging, attempting a questionable contemporary realism, this decision to employ the otherworldly countertenor sound was rendered even more curious. Fagioli is undoubtedly something very special, seemingly possessed of an instrument that can produce a notable volume, strength and flexibility compared to many in that voice range. Nonetheless, it still sounded curiously ill-matched to this particular role and its dramatic demands. I would very much like to hear him again, but in something with more of a Baroque spirit, I think, to better enjoy his performance.
A mixed first encounter with Idomeneo then, for me – if indeed it was Idomeneo I encountered. But when all is said and done, unlike La Clemenza di Tito which, frankly, bored me rigid, there was much in the score to pique my interest for a further encounter. Whenever that happens it won’t be in this production.