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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Idomeneo (1786 version)
Eric Cutler (tenor) – Idomeneo: David Portillo (tenor) – Idamante: Anett Frisch (soprano) – Ilia: Eleonora Buratto (soprano) – Elettra: Benjamin Hulett (tenor) – Arbace: Oliver Johnston (tenor) – Priest of Neptune: Alexander Tsymbalyuk (bass) – Voice of Neptune: Teatro Real Chorus and Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
rec. February 2019, Teatro Real, Madrid
OPUS ARTE OABD7276D Blu-ray [120 mins]

After so many recent operatic productions on DVD where the intentions of the composer are sacrificed on the altar of the ‘message’ that the director wishes to convey, often totally at odds with any concept of reflecting reality, it comes as something of a shock to encounter a presentation such as this, where the sense to reality is so firmly ensconced. There is plentiful use of back-projected film to give us depictions of the sea in moods raging from storm and tempest to gently rolling breakers on a shingle beach (the motion never for one moment freezing into stillness), and costumes, props and designs that are all of one historical period without any would-be ironic symbolism intruding to destroy the illusion. At the same time this is most emphatically not a ‘conventional’ production, hidebound by a would-be fidelity to the composer’s and librettist’s stage directions to the extent that the performers are strait-jacketed into a simple stand-and-deliver technique.

This is apparent from the very start, when after the overture the curtain rises to show the shingle beach surrounded by fences to keep out undesirable refugees from the fall of Troy. The original plot may be Bronze Age, but here the action is undeniably updated to the present day; the refugees are bedraggled and starving, clinging desperately to their abandoned life-jackets, while the soldiers who surround and guard them are an almost equally woe-begotten collection of individuals in stained combat fatigues. Under these circumstances, the actions in the opening scene where the King’s son Idamante frees the Trojan captive Ilia from her bondage strikes a decidedly contemporary note. When the storm casts the shipwrecked King Idomeneo up on the shingle (and it is real shingle, moving about as characters disturb the pebbles) he too is believably half-drowned, and when he is proclaimed as their King by the Cretans at the end of Act One he spruces himself up grandiosely with a full-dress military uniform spangled with medals like some South American dictator of the present day. It is no surprise, then, in the final Act, when the depredations of the monster sent by Neptune to ravage Crete and its people are reflected in a ruined street reminiscent of modern Aleppo or Tripoli. The only points at which the implacable sense of grinding truth is sacrificed are the moments when individual characters are isolated to give vent to their thoughts – sometimes spotlit in front of a drop curtain, and sometimes poetically seen in silhouette against the background of the lowering sky. The images are never jarring and are often paradoxically beautiful, reflecting superbly the nature of Mozart’s often Beethovenian drama as evidenced in the music. It is indeed, as Robert Carsen specifically states in his well-argued booklet note, a message of peace which in a production like this bids fair to challenge the example of Fidelio.

The edition of the score employed is not that of the Munich première, with its castrato alto in the role of Idamante, but that of the later Vienna revision where the role was re-assigned to a tenor. This makes dramatic sense in the terms of this production – the portrayal of the Prince as a callow adolescent would jar against Carsen’s intentions – and although one might lament the resulting tenor bias among the voices, it cannot be argued that the arrangement goes against Mozart’s wishes when he specifically re-wrote some passages to accommodate the change. In the same way, the role of Arbace, often assigned to a bass, is here allocated to a lower tenor voice, and although the character loses both of his arias from the original Munich score it could be argued that both of them tend to hold up the action at moments when it should be pressing forward. At all events we are given the score complete in Mozart’s 1786 version, without any of the minor and major niggling cuts that are inflicted on us in many alternative readings of the opera.

It might be argued that the two tenors singing the roles of Idomeneo and Idamante are too similar in timbre – other recordings using the Vienna version have tended to contrast a more heroic voice in the title role with a more lyrical one for that of his son – but there is dramatic point in viewing the two characters as similar in outlook if not in intention, and as Carsen again points out in his booklet note one can regard the interaction between the parent and his child as a mirror image of Mozart’s sometimes fractious relationship with his own father Leopold. At any rate both Eric Cutler and David Portillo are well on top of the often difficult music provided for them by Mozart, rising to the more florid passages with relative ease and certainly never overpowered by the tumult that can arise in the orchestra to reflect their emotions and challenges. The orchestra, by the way, is of a full-sized scale, and like the massive chorus fully justifies the approach of Ivor Bolton who never seeks to reduce the work to a purely classical and even conventional opera seria as some his rivals have sought to do in recent years.

A couple of months ago I was fairly unimpressed by the voice of Anett Frisch in a modernistic re-interpretation of Purcell’s King Arthur from Berlin, and the evident fact that she was hamstrung by the inanities of that production is evidenced by her transformation here into the role of Ilia, full-voiced and emotionally engaged and delivering plenty of punch in her music throughout. She looks good, too, despite her appropriately wretched costumes which seem to consist of cast-offs from various charitable organisations. In her contrastingly smart military uniforms, Eleonora Buratto looks every inch her challenger in the role of Elettra, and her fiery pride finds a believable consummation in her suicide at the end (even though this is not specified by the original libretto); she rises impressively to the coloratura fireworks, and albeit her top Cs in her final aria are pecked at rather than delivered in full voice this is clearly an intentional response to the music. Benjamin Hulett is upright, dignified and sympathetic, in what remains to him of the role of Arbace; Oliver Johnston makes much of his one opportunity as the Priest of Neptune, clad in a priestly dog-collar and presenting Idomeneo with the image of the ruin of his country to which his rash oath has reduced the population with a sense of real outrage. The treatment of Neptune himself (a somewhat awkward presence to fit into Carsen’s production) is reduced to an offstage voice, with the monster at the end of Act Two reduced to a film of a surging tsunami which threatens to overwhelm the cast; it works well, although an element of the supernatural was clearly what Mozart expected with his use of the trombones during the temple scene. Even so, after so many laughably bad attempts at giving us monsters on stage in modern operatic productions, Carsen’s reticence comes as a positive relief, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s amplified vocal contributions are suitably awe-inspiring.

There are no extras apart from a brief series of filmed cameos of the principal singers, but Carsen’s notes in the booklet go some considerable way to giving the reader guidance as to his intentions, even when his synopsis refers to the sea monster that his production circumnavigates. These notes however are supplied solely in English, although subtitles (not devoid of errors) are supplied in English, French, German, Korean and Japanese – albeit not in the sung Italian. The sound on the Blu-ray disc is excellent and gives plenty of weight to Bolton’s superlatively engaged conducting. The production was commissioned jointly not only by Madrid’s Teatro Real, but also by Toronto’s Canadian Opera, Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Opera and the Rome Opera, so this presentation, if not this cast, will presumably be familiar to viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. The film direction by François Rousillon is excellent – he manages to get the cameras pointing at the right things at the right time, something I fear that one cannot always expect – and altogether this video deserves the highest recommendation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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