Set on the island of Crete following the Trojan war, Tim Albery’s new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo at this year’s Garsington Opera season on the Wormsley Estate is a sparse, modern affair due to Hannah Clark’s bold staging coupling a rather 21st century-styled Troy with eighteenth century inspired costumes that might have been in vogue when the opera first premièred in Germany in 1781, two days after the composer’s twenty-fifth birthday.
The references to sea faring are further illustrated with two large shipping containers positioned to the left and right of the sloping stage and, akin to something you’d expect to find at Tate Modern, remain the focal point throughout. Far from the sweeping epic you might expect, this production is surprisingly intimate in feel, not least when, early in the first half, Ilia (Louise Alder) turns back the doors of the first shipping container to reveal the interior of an opulent French salon; bemusing an audience at the creativity that is now typical of a Garsington Opera production. The fishing nets and backdrop of a turbulent sea adds to the bleak nautical feel and the sense that more storms are coming our way. It seemed appropriate that I was seeing it on the day that Brexit was announced, reinforcing the fact that we humans never change no matter what gods we worship.
Renowned Swedish conductor, Tobias Ringborg is making his Garsington debut on this production, and you can sense his appreciation and understanding of the Mozart work that still sounds surprisingly brave over two hundred years later. The masterful tenor Toby Spence reigns supreme as Idomeneo, King of Crete; rescued from a storm at sea by the god Neptune (Nicholas Masters) on condition that he sacrifices the first person he subsequently meets on land, who, in true Greek style, chances to be his son, Idamante, played by mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup, who does full justice to the glorious arias whilst possessing more than enough acting prowess to make a very believable boy in breeches.
Don’t let the rather crusty plot and Giovanni Battista Varesco’s libretto put you off; yes, it’s a far cry from the composer’s better loved operas Don Giovanni or Le nozze di Figaro, but thanks to some tuneful melodies and a world-class cast, who each deliver strong performances and vocals, Idomeneo soon becomes less about Greek gods and storms and more about the turbulent relationships between the characters, not least when it’s revealed that Idamante is in love with the defeated King of Troy’s daughter, Ilia, who is being held prisoner along with many other captured Trojans (in this case a very fine chorus), intended to make us think of the refugee crisis of our own times.
Alder is endearing as the object of Idamante’s affection who, having lost both father and brothers in the war, finds herself torn between hatred of the Cretans and her increasing passion for Idomeneo’s son who rules Crete in his father’s absence. In fact, the two female performers make such convincing sweethearts that you easily forget that Hulcup isn’t a boy. Nor were the pair entirely out-shone by Mansfield-born star soprano Rebecca von Lipinski as Elettra. I well remember Lipinski’s Leonore in the 2014 Garsington Opera production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and she made an equally strong impression on this occasion with slicked back blonde hair and a bright orange bustled skirt, while her voice was electrifying still as she sung arias bewailing the possibility of losing Idamante to Ilia.
While the second half is largely dark, it does boast a happy ending and the melodies are never anything but sheer pleasure. Granted, this is undoubtedly the most challenging production at this season’s Garsington Opera in terms of its subject matter; it’s not nearly as romantic a prospect as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, nor does it provide many laughs as in the case of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, however, Idomeneo is perhaps all the more satisfying for that reason and it’s great to see that Albery’s revival succeeds in introducing us to a darker and more mysterious side of Mozart’s repertoire.
Idomeneo at Garsington Opera on selected days until 11th July 2016 as part of their annual opera season located on the Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch HP14 3YG. For more information on this and other productions please visit the website.