Mozart – Idomeneo
Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno – Krystian Adam
La Voce – Graeme Broadbent
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Marc Minkowski.
Stage Director – Martin Kušej.
Royal Opera House, London. Monday, November 10th, 2014.
I have had the pleasure of seeing some outstanding Mozart performances over the last few years – René Jacobs conducting Figaro and Entführung, Gardiner’s Figaro at the Royal Opera last fall along with another wonderfully-sung Figaro at the same venue earlier this year. Then there was the Chicago Don Giovanni a few weeks ago, which was highly musical and deeply satisfying in its own way. I own a terrific recording of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies conducted by Marc Minkowski so I had high hopes for tonight’s Idomeneo.
I’m afraid that for me this was a highly disappointing evening. It was well received by the audience who cheered the singers and the conductor greatly but I must admit it was one of the most dispiriting evenings I’ve had at the Royal Opera House. Martin Kušej seems initially to have set out to provide a study in how authoritarian rule, war and religion combine to be devastating and cyclical influences on society. There is the kernel of a great idea for a staging there yet it came across as half-baked and incomplete. The priests of Neptune for example or at least their henchmen, could have been a constant presence on the stage yet they came and went and their violent influence seemed quite tame. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Bieito stagings but this really was not convincing. Interesting how they forced the people to sing hymns to Idomeneo and how a symbol of animal danger such as a killed shark was pulled onto the stage as a way of pacifying the people to demonstrate the control of their religious and political leaders over nature. Yet, an idea of individuals being sacrificed holding fish as if to bait the shark thereby demonstrating the irrationality of worshipping a deity was barely engaged with and left underdeveloped. There was also a lot of standing and delivering on the part of the principals. It was certainly inoffensive but felt far too much like a work in progress and for that reason the whole just didn’t quite come together. The other thing that grated is that Kušej used the surtitles to illustrate the back-story or characters’ motivations as if to say that he didn’t trust the audience to think for itself. That said, I would take this any day over something as vacuous and inane as Zambello’s Carmen for example. At least it attempted to give the audience the opportunity to engage with the work and consider it as new even if ultimately, it failed.
Musically, I’m afraid to say that it fell short of the standards that a big international house such as the Royal Opera should be offering. Matthew Polenzani is a fine singer and I most recently enjoyed him as a superb Des Grieux in Massenet’s opera also in this very theatre. Tonight he sounded a little out of sorts, the voice somewhat frayed around the edges. He sang the simplified version of ‘fuor del mar’ but ornamented it in a highly stylish way. The recitatives were sung far too deliberately as if unwilling to tailor the line to the meaning of the text so that important words or phrases went for nothing. I hate to say that it was bland but that surely is the most appropriate adjective. Sophie Bevan’s Ilia took a little while to warm up – intonation was sour at the start of the evening but she eventually rallied and gave us a ravishingly-sung ‘zeffiretti lusinghieri’. Stanislas de Barbeyrac pretty much stole the show as Arbace, his aria delivered with an elegant legato and warm tone. He is a highly promising singer and one I would certainly like to hear again.
Malin Byström offered us her big, bold and somewhat unruly voice as Elettra. The sound is bright with primary colours but the support is lacking so that ends of phrases sagged in pitch. She held back on the over-singing that marred her Donna Anna in this same house earlier this year but this was singing that lacked elegance despite the undeniable natural quality of the instrument. I have warm memories of Franco Fagioli’s fine Rinaldo in Vienna last year. Sadly he was severely mis-cast as Idamante. The voice is constricted at the top and lacks weight and consequently he was drowned out in the ensembles. The lack of a variety of colours in the voice meant that the tone was consistently uningratiating and difficult to listen to. The role lies extremely high for him and intonation suffered as he undershot at the top of the voice. The diction was incomprehensible to the extent that I wondered whether he was actually singing any words at all. Worse, there was little sense of classical beauty in his phrasing of Mozart’s lines. Perhaps in a smaller house with period instruments at a lower pitch it might work but unfortunately, this was far from a success.
Likewise, we have been spoiled in this music by some excellent choruses. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect a non-specialist chorus that sings a variety of repertoire to give us the tonal balance of the finest chamber choirs. However, one thing should be non-negotiable and that is that each voice part can actually sing in tune with each other. Sadly, the wide vibratos meant that blend was all over the place which in turn meant at times it sounded as if each part was not actually singing the same note. The orchestra played decently enough. Predictably, I would have preferred a sharper attack, a more concentrated and focused string tone and a total lack of vibrato but they certainly played better than they did in the Don Giovanni earlier this year if not quite hitting the heights that they did under Gardiner last fall. Marc Minkowski’s conducting finally hit its stride in the closing ballet music, finding a rhythmic impetus that had hitherto been lacking. Until that point the conducting had lacked tension and rhythmic energy and phrasing was four-square and perfunctory.
Ultimately, this was a missed opportunity in an evening that never quite came together in the way that it could have. Kušej gave us the core of a highly promising staging and it certainly looked good, yet the effect was that it was half-baked and underdeveloped. Musically, it never quite reached the promise that this cast had on paper. With highly problematic singing from some artists, soft-grained conducting and a lack of stylistic polish this was a disappointing evening that failed to show the Royal Opera in a positive light.