Magazine article The Spectator

Curses and Blessings

Magazine article The Spectator

Curses and Blessings

Article excerpt


ENO, in rep until 9 July


City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Mozart's Idomeneo remains, despite the best efforts of its proselytisers, a connoisseur's piece. For all its beauties and its emotional power, it is a predominantly static work, and one in which one can't really care all that much about what happens to the central sympathetic characters - think of the Da Ponte operas and of Die Zauberflote, by contrast, and the point is made. Katie Mitchell, who directs the new production at ENO, 'places Idomeneo's timeless dilemma in a contemporary context', according to the programme. She would. One wonders, first, if Idomeneo's dilemma is timeless. How many people today promise Poseidon to sacrifice the first human they see if he grants them a safe sea passage? And if it's a matter of taking Poseidon, rash vows to the gods, and so forth, as metaphors, what are they metaphors for?

Anyway, of course what happens when the curtain rises is that the characters sit on a contemporary sofa, or dine at an immense table, while suited executives and other undesirables, and waiters, shoot into and out of doors at a rate suggesting Feydeau, and to no purpose, except to deliver drinks to the evidently alcoholic principals; Electra is particularly thirsty, and when Room Service appears in Act II she behaves in a way closely modelled on the Duchess of York or possibly of Argyll. By that time, too, couples are shuffling in the background in a vague simulacrum of ballroom dancing. The restlessness around the characters got to the point of inducing hysterical laughter in a fair proportion of the audience, the ones who weren't silently screaming.

The modality of the production changed in Act III, which was contrastingly still and solemn. But that isn't the way Mozart's opera goes, and by then one was reconciled to any pleasures being exclusively musical. Just to emphasise the point: this was the silliest, most irritating production I have seen, even more so than Mitchell's Dido and Aeneas.

Could ENO please not use her any more?

Edward Gardner conducted a spirited account of the score, so far as it allows that, with a curiously very subdued Act III quartet, which was effective, suggesting that the characters are already exhausted by their multiple dilemmas. Thank God Gardner dispenses with the dancing at the end. The singing is mainly of a high standard, with Emma Bell outstanding as Electra, though she has to play her in so absurd a manner that several of her lines drew guffaws. Paul Nilon, whom I last saw in the title role in a disused rubber factory on the outskirts of Birmingham, is his reliably expressive, hangdog self; and Idomeneo's son Idamante, well sung by Robert Murray, has a strikingly similar voice, which made the scenes between them the most affecting in the opera. …

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