Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House

It is rare to be astounded by a show, or find opera that exceeds all expectation. Unfortunately Idomeneo at the Royal Opera House did the opposite of that. Having been warned by colleagues that the new production left a lot to be desired, I was aghast at just how dissatisfying Martin Kusej’s new production was.

Idomeneo is a taxing opera for any director; it’s two hours in before we reach the interval. Numerous solo arias are lined up back-to-back providing little variation to assuage this.

Kusej has approached the opera with a clear message that he wishes Idomeneo to convey, using the plot as a vehicle to display a contemporary message about oppressive regimes. Sadly, the concept is shoehorned into the plot and succeeds in making this long opera pass by even more slowly.

Set upon a revolving, geometric set, white-washed box buildings spin to allow different corridors and alleys to appear. Seemingly an ideal opportunity for the action to wind it’s way through the space, in reality it results in the performers stuck in the front third of the stage, left pacing circles throughout arias.

The opera opens with leather-clad skinheads wielding sub-machine guns, threatening the washed-up Trojan prisoners. This is a gun-happy production, meant to invoke a reign of terror. Sadly, they are held wrongly, the stage fighting is poor and the violence feels weak and merely acted.

Idomeneo is usually a tale of sea monsters and angry gods. Kusej has removed Nettono’s (Neptunes) overarching power and instead the events occur as reactions to human behaviour. An interesting twist, but difficult for the singers as ofter they are singing words that have no relation to the new plot. At the end of act two, Kusej directs a riot and this is an excellent example of how badly executed his whole idea is. The rioters look unenthused and lacklustre; yet again gunwielding skinheads didn’t feel terrifying enough.

Kusej’s overarching aim is commendable: the message projected above the long orchestral ending (often cut) comments that the souls of the people grow cold as the revolts pass and the rulers remain. The final still tableau comes far too slowly but provides an interesting twist to this usually happy ending. Idamante stepping into his father’s shoes feels awkward, and as the set revolves we find him and Ilia splattered with more blood, confirming there will be no new peaceful era.

The cast contains some wonderful voices. Sophie Bevan (Ilia), shows off sparking sound and easy vocal control. At times this is almost too controlled—in acts I and II she could display more of the internal struggle Ilia is dealing with having fallen in love with the enemy.

The unusual choice of counter tenor Idamante (Franco Fagioli) brings a new colour. Fagioli displays incredible vocal freedom at the top of his range but could have clearer diction. Malin Bystrom, the sexily clad Elettra, has great physical presence as the scorned lover and a warm tone that just occasionally becomes pinched when striving for quieter effects. Matthew Polenzani (Idomeneo) commands the difficult royal role with aplomb, and injects much-needed vivacity to his singing. Stanislas de Barbeyrac shines in his sadly too small role, and proves he is a tenor to watch.

The fine singing feels a little undersupported by the orchestra. Mark Minkowski conducts a very neat, accurate Idomeneo, but it feels lacking in fire and doesn't quite explode into the musical climaxes as desired.

Overall, a disappointing evening. However hard the singers work they can't overcome the fact that Kusej’s grand idea is executed poorly.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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