Idomeneo, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, June 2010

Imagine a father accidentally committed to sacrificing his son — think Abraham and Isaac — and you have the essential element of this opera, which Mozart wrote when he was 24. It was completed and first performed in Munich, where he enjoyed a peaceful few months, and he later considered it to be one of his best works. The essence of the story is that Idomeneo, returning to Crete from the Trojan War, promises Poseidon that if spared from shipwreck he will sacrifice the first person he sees upon reaching home, and is met on landing by his son Idamante. This young man loves the Trojan princess Ilia, and has released her and the Trojan prisoners. She loves him in return, but so does Elektra, who is living at the palace in exile.

Robert Murray as Idamante and Sarah Tynan as Ilia

Idamante lamenting by the sea shore

The music is wonderfully expressive of the conflicting emotions, and was superbly conducted by Edward Gardner with powerful singing from the chorus. Paul Nilon sang strongly as Idomeneo, doing well with his important Act II aria Fuor del mar when he laments being saved from the sea only to have a raging sea in his heart. Idamante was a tenor role in this production, well sung by Robert Murray, whom I last saw nearly two years ago as a powerful simpleton in Boris Godunov. In the original version of 1781, Idamante was a castrato role, but Mozart gave a tenor alternative five years later in Vienna when it was being performed by amateurs. The opera starts with a long aria for Ilia, wonderfully sung by Sarah Tynan, whom I saw a few months ago as Adina in The Elixir of Love. She had a charming stage presence, her diction was superb, and she portrayed this Pamina-like role with great delicacy. Then as the vengeful Elektra, desperate to defeat her rival and win her prince, Emma Bell’s strong voice and presence showed sneering arrogance turning to anger, and in the end of course she becomes quite unhinged, waving a gun around and shooting herself off-stage.

Emma Bell as Elektra starts to go crazy

The use of guns made sense since this production by Katie Mitchell is in a modern context, and indeed the costumes by Vicki Mortimer are absolutely up to date, the men wearing suits, with Elektra in a black dress, and Ilia looking delightful in stylish light coloured dresses. I liked the clean, plain sets by Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales, and loved the images of the sea, sometimes raging most fearsomely. I particularly liked the preparation for the proposed exile of Idamante in Act II, where he and others waited at the departure gate while Elekra sat comfortably in the VIP lounge, delighted to be off with her beloved, and away from her rival. When the terrible storm rages everyone floods into the lounge, creating a tight space for the chorus to sing fearfully about this new terror. My only complaint about the production was that there were too many irrelevant comings and goings across the stage while various duets and soliloquies were going on. I know this is a rather static opera, but the busy activity had the smell of contrivance. Indeed, Sarah Tynan held the stage well in her long first aria, and needed less distraction. But the emotion came through very well, and ENO’s first new production of Idomeneo since 1962 must be counted a great success.

Performances continue until July 9th — for more details click here.

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