The set might be sparse and the costumes a little on the beige side, but all the same Pinchgut Opera's Idomeneo is bursting with vivid life and colour. Directors I suppose feel obliged to do all they can to shake up this kind of Mozart, the relatively conventional (at least on the face of it) operas without the opportunities for subversion which Figaro and Don Giovanni, for instance, offer up on a plate. But thankfully enough, Lindy Hume's production for Pinchgut resists idiosyncratic directorial weirdness — no severed heads here — and just goes to the human heart of the matter. She draws, for the most part, heartfelt and convincing portrayals from her soloists, identifying the key psychological crises at play here and thus creating an intimate, tangibly personal drama. Transporting this opera, full of references to Trojans and the like, to another time or place would be at best difficult to do convincingly, at worst disastrous and absurd; so for all intents and purposes, this Idomeneo takes place in its original setting. But this scene is set in such a neutral way that it is very definitely the emotional core of the play — a father's excruciatingly untenable situation — which takes centre stage.
Love, fear, rage, jealousy: strong feelings abound in Idomeneo from its very beginning, and as events progress they only intensify further. Driving this intensity is the opera's suprisingly powerful music. Mozart had of course written opera seria before this one, but the difference is immense between the relatively unswerving conventionality of, say, Mitridate and the inspired fire which shows itself in Idomeneo. The story may be not be as fascinating or characterful as those of the Da Ponte trilogy, but it does offer the opportunity for dark and dramatic music in a way those later comedies, Don Giovanni included, can't necessarily do — and it's an opportunity Mozart seizes with both hands. There is a thrill to be had in Mozart without jokes or comical misunderstandings: last night's only laugh was the result of a somewhat poorly considered surtitle; otherwise there's light and love to be found in Idomeneo but little in the way of levity.
None of this heavy-going gorgeousness comes together, of course, without the singers who can execute it, and Pinchgut has assembled an excellent and able cast. Mark Tucker is riveting in the title role, his earthy and commanding yet flexible tenor ideally suited to the role; his detailed acting is likewise compelling, striking just the right balance between kingly gravitas and unimaginable pain. As his son, Fiona Campbell looks convincingly manly, and indeed at times even sounds it: one could almost mistake her for a countertenor. But I found her a disappointingly mousy Idamante, both vocally and dramatically: her voice too insubstantial — though cleanly focused — and bearing too awkwardly hesitant to do the role justice. The fact that Idamante appears to have been inadvertently costumed as a member of Greenpeace also doesn't help. Martene Grimson's Ilia, on the other hand, is forceful and regal enough for the both of them. Though some (me, for instance) might wish for a richer and more rounded sound, she nevertheless sings with beauty of line and thrilling commitment. In her hands, Ilia is no mere sweet and pretty princess but a fiery and determined leader, the only person on stage who's truly in control. Her "Se il padre perdei" is a revelation — no longer an expression of hard to believe forgiveness and generosity, but rather a command: you've robbed me of home and family — that makes me your responsibility, so do your duty. Such a statement is of course a particularly heavy burden to lay on the shoulders of a father already so utterly tormented by his paternal duties. Completing the quartet of principals is Penelope Mills' electrifying (if you'll pardon the pun) Elettra. Inappropriately resplendent in royal blue among a sea of earth-toned Cretans, Elettra is clearly the outsider — the frenetic power which drives her arias is fear and alienation rather than fury. Mills' singing combines slice and scariness with exquisite phrasing and irresistibly silky tone, and she makes an unusually sympathetic Elettra. Though her jealous rants might in theory seem superfluous to the story, Penelope's performance made certain that when Elettra was singing, it was she and nobody else at the centre of the drama. When she exited after her Act III aria I wished I could follow — her story seemed, at that point, rather more fascinating than the lieto fine about to roll itself out in Crete.
The opera's smaller roles are also admirably filled. Paul McMahon is a pleasant if not hugely memorable Arbace and Didier Frédéric a suitably booming Voice; but particular mention must be made of Brett Weymark's outstanding appearance as the High Priest, whichsucceeds in making a three-dimensional character from what could easily be a faceless cameo, and is so fantastically sung one wishes a larger role could have been found for him. With far more work to do than in other Mozart operas, the chorus here (Cantillation) responds marvellously, singing with precision and power. The Orchestra of the Antipodes is just as magnificent; from them and from his singers, Antony Walker draws a muscular, blazing and beautiful performance. Pinchgut Opera offered a money back guarantee to "opera virgins" unmoved by this Idomeneo; I daresay they could make the same promise to experienced operagoers and hardened fanatics and still have no takers. Absolutely a success.
P.S. This is my 500th post. Well done me!