The chorus of Cretan fishermen. Pictures: Clive Barda


Garsington Opera

Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch


SO familiar are most people with Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas - The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte, plus his famous last effort, The Magic Flute, that it is easy to overlook what preceded.

The answer is some 15 operas, or parts of operas, of which the most outstanding of these is Idomeneo, re di Creta, one of several operas with a classical setting, and so consistently superb it easily stands on a par with those mentioned, and with his later Roman opera, La Clemenza di Tito.

Idomeneo was first seen in Munich (in 178king1, when Mozart was all but 25) and was even then a success. It’s puzzling to note that it was not seen in Britain till Glasgow introduced it in 1934. Glyndebourne followed suit in 1951, Sadler’s Wells in 1962 and Covent Garden not till 1978 - four years before the Met in New York.

It’s equally difficult to see why, even now, it’s not a more regular part of the European mainstream repertoire. However, Britain has done better than most. The Royal Opera recently returned to it with a production by the excellent Martin Kušej; Grange Park put it on in 2012; and there was a very presentable staging by Opera North in Leeds just a few years back.

However, the present season (2015-16) has seen a paltry three revivals in Germany, just one or two nights each, and one production in Poland. A mere eight evenings, but no more, in an entire season.  

Toby Spence in the title role

But now comes Garsington Opera, (formerly located at a hillside manor east of  Oxford and now in a spectacular new construction just behind the Chiltern Ridge), with a production of astounding power and impact, much of the excitement and drama thanks to producer Tim Albery’s inventive and immensely consistent direction - not least the manoeuvring around the stage of some 26 chorus members - and to an arresting and rather daring design by Hannah Clark.

Who is the central character in Idomeneo? As Albery presents it, it is, in effect, the sea. The title character is the king of Crete, one of the Greek allies who on his return from Troy suffers, Odysseus-like, more than his fair share of disaster from the violence of the Aegean, initiated by the angry god Neptune. And the impact of the set and costumes makes this clear.

Clad in navy boiler suits, the chorus are depicted as any-period fisher folk who know the dangers of their trade. A vast poster-like picture of a potentially violent-looking ocean forms the visual centrepiece. Fishing nets and rowing oars form an initial backdrop. But above all, two massive green-blue Portakabin-like containers, which are quite dramatically and artfully used to create internal changes of scene, dominate the stage, alternating from imprisoning bedroom to seafaring vessel to royal throne room.

Mozart’s libretto, by the Salzburg-based Giovanni Battista Varesco (1735-1805), who later worked with the composer on an opera entitled The Cairo Goose (later abandoned), opens the door to numerous magnificent exchanges, some of which are highly dramatic recitative rather than arias as such. And it was the handling of the recitative, often swift, always expressive, accompanied - perhaps unusually, but extremely effectively - by piano that created some of the best musical effects. There was no lapse in the intensity at any point.

The role of the storm-battered ruler fell to tenor Toby Spence, for many years one of the most delightful tenors on the English dramatic stage, able to bring youthful spirit and (here) mature command to numerous roles, and who emerged from an orange lifejacket to confirm his glorious talents with an extraordinary burst of coloratura, amazingly controlled, forceful and assertive, yet strikingly expressive.The only surprise was that his Idomeneo seemed wholly incapable of taking control of the situation. And with good reason: tortured by his experiences at sea, and completely despairing at the divine injunction that he sacrifice his own son - the first being he encountered upon landing, we see him at the end, utterly desolate and isolated, his rule shattered, his life’s work destroyed; a truly depressed, pitiful looking figure.

The great choruses of despair, conversely of praise to Neptune, were resplendently sung (chorus master: Susanna Stranders): impassioned, superbly unified, and where needed, really vigorous. One could possibly be irritated by so many shiftings of blue-clad figures - some a bit like recentlovers stagings of Bach’s Passions; but the detail of Tim Albery’s direction, creating a vast swathe or kaleidoscope of different blockings and loose formations, to communicate anguish, loyalty, sympathy, support, dejection, and a range of mutually supportive activities which included the burying in a smashed-up container of black body bags containing those who had perished of an Oedipus-like plague - nastily depicted by the vomiting of a blue (possibly sea-like) liquid, as if all had ingested bad squid.

Caitlin Hulcup as Idamante and Louise Alder as Ilia

These boiler suited figures, massing together, in fact perfectly suggested the poverty and emptiness, drudgery, tedium and exhaustion of life on Crete, and their hapless dependence on the initiative and leadership of the monarch.

Two characters appear late in the story who play a key role in the dénouement: Robert Murray’s High Priest, who looks to all intents and purposes like yet another fisherman - (and perhaps, in those days when the seaside community was stretched, a necessary doubling, a leader drawn from the multitude); and then the awesome voice of Neptune himself (Nicholas Masters), who appeared on stage as an eerie, somewhat slithery figure. But worth picking out among the lesser parts are the two points where Mozart allocates salient roles to a miniature semi-chorus. Two male voices (Bradley Smith, Benjamin Lewis) sang a Trojan duo; and three appealing Cretan figures were Annabel Mountford, Hazel McBain and Elizabeth Lynch, who produced some of the most attractive gentle singing of the evening: beautifully eloquent and finessed, the effect of these voices from the chorus suggested it might be a device Mozart could have used here more often.  

But two younger royal characters, pitted against one another, both head over heels in love, the one with the Trojan princess Ilia (some of Mozart’s finest lighter writing in the opera, tenderly sung by Louise Alder), the other possessively determined to trap Idomeneo’s son Idamante, produced the most stunning and scintillating performances. The first was Caitlin Hulcup, whose very first notes, dazzlingly projected, created an astounding effect as Idamante, the son of Idomeneo, who his father has unwittingly undertaken to sacrifice to Neptune in return for his safe return by sea; every passage of aria or recitative was utterly gorgeous.

Meanwhile Rebecca von Lipinski as the bossy Elettra (Elektra) whose aspirations are shattered and who emerges as the most tragic figure of all in the end, produced three of the most amazing arias from Mozart’s remarkable score. These two were surely hard to better: Idamante has some of the loveliest, most passionate writing in all Mozart; and Elettra, whose determination to trap Idamante in a loveless marriage are dashed, leaving her in desperation, concludes with one of the most explosive and shattering of all the forceful operas in Mozart.  Absolutely knockout.

Roderic Dunnett



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