Director Tim Albery and conductor Tobias Ringborg’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo for Garsington Opera at Wormsley transforms this operatic sow’s ear into a silk purse. By tightening up the story, cutting down the recitative but adding music from the Anhang, the appendix to the published edition, they have restructured the youthful composer’s flabby piece. In a “conversation” in the programme, they go so far as to agree that they have been “energised by the work’s flaws.” By, for example, including Elettra’s final aria, which is in the Anhang but not in the score, they have rounded out the plot and filled in the sketchy outlines of the haughty, naughty woman who is the nearest thing the piece has to a villain. They’ve used other material from it as well, to clarify characters’ motivation, yet they’ve cut fairly ruthlessly in other places, and reduced Idomeneo to less than the Wagnerian length the full score would take. Their version is so well-judged that this really ought to become, if not the standard version of this unruly work, at least one to which future directors should have recourse. It’s certainly the best, most enjoyable of the five or six productions I’ve seen.
It’s helped at Wormsley by Hannah Clark’s sets – a pair of washed-up sea containers, one of which is on its side at an angle to the audience – and is used as a prison and graveyard – and another right side up – which opens to its full extent and houses various rooms furnished with Louis-Something chairs, beds, tables and whatever else is needed for any particular scene. Her mixed-period costumes are completely effective. Other elements of the production’s success are Malcolm Rippeth’s striking lighting effects and the nifty footwork of Tim Claydon’s movement direction.
Mr Ringborg gets an urgent, wholly committed performance from his orchestra of Mozart’s music, which he says “is very old-fashioned in some parts, while in others his music is extremely modern – more so in some ways than the operas he wrote with Da Ponte.” Add to this a vigorously beautiful and modulated performance by the good-sized chorus, and this is a production I’d happily seen again – and again.
The plot is familiar. Ilia, the daughter of King Priam, defeated in the Trojan War, has been brought to Crete with other Trojan prisoners. She hates Greeks, but fancies, Idamante, who rules Crete in the absence of his father, the king, Idomeneo. She also fears that Idamante is really in love with Elettra, daughter of the slain Agamemnon.
The Greek Arbace enters with news that Idomeneo has been shipwrecked and is dead, but this turns out to be false: he has survived by making a deal with Neptune that, in exchange for his survival, he will sacrifice the first living creature he sees – which is, of course, his own son, Idamante. The rest of the opera tells how he manages (honourably) to fail to carry out his promise. There is a splendid coup de théâtre involving the set; the lovers triumph; Elettra rages; and Idomeneo abdicates in favour of his son. All very tidy, and it does raise real questions about rule utilitarianism and promise-keeping, about the conflicts between love and duty, and state and religion.
What makes this production so notable is that it is straightforward and never silly. Part of the credit for this belongs to the editing, and the rest to the truly excellent cast, led by tenor Toby Spence in the title role, who acts the piece with the seriousness it merits. A long-time admirer of Mr Spence, ever since his Oxford days, I must be one of the very few members of the Garsington audience who has seen all of him, as he did Britten’s Curlew River in Edinburgh in 2005 completely in the buff. The acting at Garsington was first-rate, with full marks going to Louise Alder, a fine Ilia with a precise coloratura, Caitlin Hulcup giving us some lovely mezzo arias (and duets with Ms Alder) in the trouser-role of Idamante and Rebecca von Lipinski a really outstanding, flamboyant and angry Elettra. The minor roles were all well-cast and contributed to making this a grand night for Garsington Opera.