Mozart wrote 20 operas during his relatively short life, the first being performed in Salzburg in 1767, when the composer was just eleven years old. However, it is Idomeneo, written and premièred when Mozart was the ripe old age of 25, which is usually considered to be his first mature opera.
The opera takes place on the island of Crete immediately after the Trojan War. King Idomeneo, caught in a storm on his way home from Troy, makes a deal with Neptune to save his life, but angers the god by failing to uphold his end of the bargain. Neptune thus plagues Crete with a sea monster, and Idomeneo must relinquish his throne to his son, Idamante, and his new queen, Electra, the former princess of Troy, in order to spare his people from Neptune’s wrath. To this plot Mozart sets a musical backdrop of the surrounding sea, made vengeful by Neptune, and uses the voices in a truly imaginative way which not only depicts the characters themselves, but shows how they relate to each other.
The new production at Dresden’s Semperoper is a wonderfully creative working of this somewhat problematic opera. There are many questions for a stage director to answer here. How should the sea be depicted? How can I represent the wrath of a god on stage? What kind of character is Idomeneo? All of these uncertainties and staging difficulties are overcome by director Michael Schulz, together with designer Kathrin-Susann Brose, and the result is engaging and enlightening.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the whole production is the depiction of Neptune. From the moment Idomeneo arrives the stage is constantly overlooked by Neptune’s minions (actors covered in turquoise body paint, and resembling the washed-up corpse of someone who drowned). These strange creatures not only inhabit the stage, but take over many aspects of Idomeneo’s world, from his barman to his prostitutes. These wonderful and flexible actors represent the sea, the sea monster, and Neptune’s vengeful omniscience, and this wonderful use of physical theatre is what elevates this production from something merely good to something truly remarkable.
The set is quite simple, consisting of concentric arcs lit predominantly with white light, and it retains the clean and white aesthetic associated with ancient Greece, while modernising itself out of the realms of cliché. The costumes are likewise a blend of the ancient and the modern, ranging from the rags of the slaves through to elaborate dresses of the self-involved Electra, the other woman in pursuit of Idamante’s affections.
Musically this production was also impressive. The British conductor Julia Jones holds Idomeneo very close to her heart, and she endowed the music with a dramatic thread which can be difficult to achieve in this somewhat fragmented work. Under her direction the Sächsiche Staatskappelle Dresden played Mozart’s music in a tasteful and historically informed way, but at the same time without compromising their own distinctly rich sound or losing any of the music’s dramatic quality, an impressive accomplishment.
In the title role, the Korean tenor Wookyung Kim cut an impressive figure on stage, both vocally and dramatically. His Idomeneo was a conflicting and problematic one, who simultaneously loved his country and his son while also being corrupt and often selfish, and he embodied this character and its mood swings impeccably. His voice was full and deep in tone, almost like a baritone in colour, though with the range of a tenor, providing wonderfully lyrical moments. However, this is an opera seria and what Mozart takes from Handel is the proliferance of coloratura, which proved a stumbling block from Kim, with messy runs in several of his arias.
As the loving couple, Idamante and Ilia, Anke Vondung and Elena Gorshunova were as good dramatically as they were musically, with powerful yet agile voices. Their love duet in Act III, was the beautifully sensuous climax of two acts of self-denial and felt like a wonderful release from the tension and bravura that both singers had masterfully built up until this point. Even more impressive was Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Electra, whose final mad scene was for me the absolute highlight of the opera. All the stops were pulled out for this show-stopping display of insanity, excellent both musically and dramatically.
This was a wonderful new production in all respects. Not only was it well sung and played, but the production is imaginative and modern, and has something new and interesting to say about the piece. Perhaps most importantly, this is achieved organically. There isn’t a new image of the opera superimposed onto what was there. This new production takes Mozart’s opera as its starting point, and goes from there to create something which begs to be seen.