Kicking off this year's Barock-Tage (Baroque Days) at the Staatsoper Berlin is the German premiere of Idoménée by André Campra. Born in 1660 in the south of France, his name will not ring a bell for most opera lovers. Yet his work is an important link in the evolution of French opera, placing him between Lully and Rameau, and for having established the then-novel musical genre of the opéra-ballet.

Tassis Christoyannis (Idoménée) and ensemble
© Simon Gosselin

Campra wrote Idoménée in 1712, with a prologue and five acts to a libretto by Antoine Danchet, which was used as a template by Mozart's librettist Giambattista Varesco almost 70 years later. In both cases, it is the story of the titular king who, after the Trojan War, is prevented from returning home by the angry god Poseidon and vows to sacrifice the first man he meets upon his arrival home in order to restore peace. Tragically, this is his son. After various convoluted love stories involving Venus, Jealousy, and Fate, the father ends up killing his son, only to be prevented in taking his own life when he realises what he has done. The gods punish him by condemning him to live on.

© Bernd Uhlig

In this co-production with Opéra de Lille, stage director Àlex Ollé, a member of the Catalan theatre collective La Fura dels Baus, has tried to bring to the fore human emotions of not only the humans but also the heavenly protagonists. Unfortunately, his efforts go largely unheeded by the singers, with most of them giving a two-dimensional portrayal of their characters despite much bodily heaving and writhing. It is through the stunning stage decor by Alfons Flores that the prevailing moods are conveyed: huge layers of broken sheets of translucent acrylic are flown in from the rafters. Their undulating movement and the various video projections by Emmanuel Carlier create stunning rooms, ranging from chandelier-decked salons in Baroque splendour to maritime upheavals and storms. Combined with the atmospheric lighting by Urs Schönebaum, a surrealistic stage language is created that fits the emotional outpourings of the characters.

Eva Zaïcik (Vénus), Victor Sicard (La Jalousie, Némésis) and ensemble
© Simon Gosselin

Campra writes differentiated recitatives in which orchestral instruments often join in creating a single, varied flow of sound, subtly orchestrated with bassoon, two flutes, oboe and bagpipes. This may be difficult to coordinate, but Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée have every part of the clockwork under control in the pit while still preserving a certain spontaneity. Haïm lets the five acts meld together, blurring the boundaries between recitatives and arioso sections most effectively. Choruses dissolve into movement, dances are sung in turn. Martin Harriague choreographs the Compagnie Dantzaz with fluid dance numbers that are integrated into the scenic flow in a dramaturgically coherent way. The chorus, rehearsed by Denis Comtet, provides a special sound experience with six hautes-contre (high tenor voices).

Tassis Christoyannis (Idoménée)
© Simon Gosselin

All the singers have been imported from the co-producing venue in Lille. They are the weakest link in the production chain, with none making a strong impression. However, this may be in part in keeping with the overall concept of French Baroque opera, where there is no expressive star virtuosity. Baritone Tassis Christoyannis embodied the long-suffering father Idoménée, broken in spirit from the beginning. Tenor Samuel Boden sang his bland son, Idamante. Trojan princess Ilione was sung well by lyric soprano Chiara Skerath, while soprano Hélène Carpentier's Electre, whose character presupposes a certain hysteria, proved to be quite discreet in her display of emotion. Mezzo-soprano Eva Zaïcik was a visually stunning and dominant Venus, while baritone Yoann Dubruque was an angry Neptune, more interested in his declamations than emotions. Baritone Victor Sicard alternated between La Jalousie and Némésis in drag. In the present day and age, all of the characters would have ended up on a psychoanalyst's couch for extended therapy. 

In the Staatsoper's original long-range planning, this Idomenée should have complemented Mozart's Idomeneo, which has become a corona victim and is still awaiting its premiere. It will be interesting to contrast both productions some time in the future.