“No music has ever made such an impression on me. It is magnificent.” Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, was bowled over by the opera he had commissioned in 1780, but Idomeneo, rè di Creta has struggled to gain popularity among Mozart's mature operas. It's still something of a 'Cinderella', yet Graham Vick is about to direct it for the third time and is as positive as Karl Theodor: “It's a great drama, a fantastically rich myth, and it's got a fantastic score,” he enthuses. His new staging for Göteborg Opera follows productions at Florence's Maggio Musicale in 2004 and with his own Birmingham Opera Company in 2008, so he knows the work intimately.

Graham Vick © Hugo Glendinning
Graham Vick
© Hugo Glendinning
Vick believes that Mozart was breaking new ground with Idomeneo: “It's a young man finding his personality and his voice, taking an old form and exploding it into a new form by taking a subject matter which is about the old world, the old philosophy, the old generations giving way to the new – the perfect match of musical form and subject.”

The plot concerns the aftermath of the Trojan War. After King Priam's defeat, his daughter Ilia was captured and taken to the island of Crete, where she secretly fell in love with Idamante, King Idomeneo's son. Idamante orders the freeing of the Trojan prisoners, much to the alarm of Elettra, Princess of Argos, who is jealous of Ilia. Idomeneo himself is feared lost at sea, but his life has been spared by the god, Neptune. Washed ashore, Idomeneo recalls the bargain he made with Neptune – should his life be spared, he would sacrifice the first living creature he meets. But the first person he claps his eyes on is Idamante, his son. Arbace suggests that Idomeneo could send his son into exile and sacrifice another, but what are the consequences of breaking his deal with Neptune?

For Göteborg, Vick is setting Idomeneo “in the modern world with contemporary clothes”. Are there any modern parallels he is trying to bring out for the audience? “That's the easiest thing possible,” he replies. “The subject matter is the ancient Greek culture, the old guard – the Old Testament is a way we might look at it – taking a step of evolution and consciousness towards the new world. So from 5th century BC, we have the family of justice and the courts and the birth of Christ and God made Man. This is a breakthrough moment which all cultural societies go through. A new birth. It's about hope. Arbace talks all the way through the piece about the coming of hope. He hopes it's coming and hope is what Idamante represents. And eventually it's for Idomeneo to hand over the world to the new, to resign. In that way, of course, it's got a lot to do with The Magic Flute.”

Vick describes Birmingham Opera Company as his “laboratory”. For his 2008 Idomeneo, the audience participated as prisoners of war, and his site-specific productions there are bold and have been met with great acclaim. “I am most completely at myself in Birmingham,” he confesses. “It gives me the courage to take it to other places.” Places such as Bucharest, where Vick is currently directing Fidelio which features 25 students acting in it. “I'm setting it during the student riots. I've adapted my own version – the show is very Birmingham in its thrust.”

Paul Nilon as Idomeneo in Birmingham © Donald Cooper | Birmingham Opera Company
Paul Nilon as Idomeneo in Birmingham
© Donald Cooper | Birmingham Opera Company
Tenor Paul Nilon was Idomeneo in Birmingham and Vick has cast him again in Göteborg. “He's a great singer, so he understands how to thrill and enjoy the virtuosity of 18th-century writing and inhabit it with profound meaning. That is the level of great artistry that this repertoire requires to speak to audiences.”

One of the more interesting casting choices is that of Idomeneo's son, Idamante. A castrato role, it is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, although in Martin Kušej's production for The Royal Opera, a countertenor was used. Mozart, however, rewrote the role for tenor and it's this route Vick has gone down, with Luciano Botelho singing the role in Sweden. “When I did it at the Maggio, I did it with a fantastic mezzo, Monica Bacelli, who is a dear friend and someone I'd done a lot of roles with. So I had expected her to be the perfect Idamante. But when I watched it, when I rehearsed it, I never felt quite torn apart by the relationship between the father and the son. I couldn't get myself beyond the artifice of the opera. When Idomeneo picked up the dagger to kill his son, it didn't speak in the way that I know Mozart wanted it to.

“So when I did it in Birmingham, I cast Idamante as a tenor, because I knew it would touch them more deeply and I was interested for my own sake to see how I felt about it. I genuinely believe that the music drama was better served by a tenor. I'm not saying this is an absolute, but for me, as a director, it matters. I was more profoundly moved and shaken and touched by the two tenors doing the sacrifice scene and I thought that doing this in Göteborg, where it's not an operatic audience, where they don't know the repertoire, where Idomeneo is a very unusual piece, is the right choice.”

Mozart ends the opera with a ten-minute ballet sequence – not the most gripping of finales, but one that many conductors insist on retaining. Vick included the ballet in Florence, but felt that dramatically it was unworkable. “The music is magnificent, but it's a struggle to reach the end of the drama to suspend your attention. It's not titanically well-proportioned by Mozart – it's like a Christmas pudding – it's very, very, very rich, and there comes a point when you can't quite face another teaspoonful.” So no ballet in Göteborg? “Maybe one day, for a festival, it'll be a good idea to look at the ballet again, but for an audience that's coming after a day at work in Sweden, I think that would be the wrong choice.”

Whatever choices Vick makes in Göteborg, Idomeneo could have no finer advocate among contemporary directors.  


This article was sponsored by Göteborg Opera.