Mozart’s early career take on Italian opera seria, Idomeneo (1781), has only been performed at Hungarian State Opera once before (1979). This house’s strengths tend to be in the realm of really big opera – Wagner, Strauss, Bartók – so, reintroducing Idomeneo within the European maelstrom of period performance practice is a bold move. As it turned out, the musical attributes of this performance were stellar (caveats below) and likewise, its pandemic-informed mise-en-scène offered much food (pun intended) for thought.

Szabolcs Brickner (Idomeneo)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

General Music Director Balázs Kocsár led a musically sensitive and dramatically nuanced rendition of the score. An appropriately reduced Hungarian State Opera Orchestra played from a raised pit allowing every detail of Mozart’s richly varied orchestration to be on full display. From the overture onwards, Kocsár coaxed tempi and dynamic markings that decisively underpinned the onstage drama. Orchestral solos emerged organically in the hall’s warm, yet clear acoustic; the overture’s punchy string accents and deliberate dynamic shadings served noticed this was an Idomeneo whose overall success would emerge from the pit.

Within the audience, there was audible and visible unease with András Almási-Tóth’s vision. The director, along with his design and choreographic team, create a society struck by a sickness when their King, Idomeneo, cannot deliver on his promise to kill the first person he encounters after Neptune rescues him from a shipwreck. The vaguely contemporised Art Deco set is strewn with video screens encouraging the public to “test today, live longer”, even offering “cheap body parts recycled”. Parallels with our own pandemic times are clear. 

Zsuzsanna Ádám (Elettra) and ensemble
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

By Act 2, we are in full pandemic, climate crisis mode with buildings covered in overgrown vegetation and dogs running in the streets (well, one very cute audience-pleasing pooch anyway). The chorus (aurally and dramatically magnificent), plus dancers from the Hungarian Dance University writhe, tick and convulse like the infected predators in the current HBO pandemic-themed hit, The Last of Us. Some of their movement (choreographed by Noémi Kulcsár) was a little too on the nose, but in general, was effective in conveying the disturbing effects of Idomeneo’s disrespect for the forces of nature. 

The company assembled a very strong group of principals. Soprano Emőke Baráth made a rare appearance on her native national opera stage as one of today’s leading period performance stars. As Idamante’s love interest, Ilia, her light but richly-coloured tone filled the hall. She was especially affecting in “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” where she virtuosically swelled stunning pianissimi into full-toned richness. 

Gabriella Balga (Idamante) and Emőke Baráth (Ilia)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Mezzo-soprano Gabriella Balga, sporting a beard and moustache, was a youthful, emotional Idamante. Her bright, flexible tone is ideal for this pants role, which she sang with admirable dynamic variety and dramatic engagement. As Ilia’s rival Elettra, soprano Zsuzsanna Ádám tore up the scenery, clearly mentally disturbed from the outset. She held a blood-stained, claw-like hand aloft throughout – a somewhat opaque directorial quirk – but it clearly marked her outsider status. Ádám possesses beautiful, rich tone and the technical skills required for this tricky role, only her somewhat unclear Italian diction marred an otherwise thrilling portrayal. 

In the title role, tenor Szabolcs Brickner possessed the requisite heroic tone and clearly projected Idomeneo’s agonising conflict, as well as his status as the community’s leader. In two key moments he is live-streamed by an onstage video crew as he addresses his people. This conceit was especially effective in “Fuor del mar” for which he dons a red English army coat and royal ermine cape that cunningly mirror the aria’s military rhythms. The brutal demands of the piece did expose some of Brickner’s unease with coloratura but in his final “Torna la pace al core”, vocal flexibility seemed to be less of a problem.

Zsuzsanna Ádám (Elettra)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Yet to be addressed are the severe cuts inflicted on the score. Ilia and Elettra were most affected, losing two of the opera’s more famous numbers, “Se il padre perdei” and “Idol mio” respectively. The excellent tenor Ninh Duc Hoang Long as Idomeneo’s adviser Arbace (here a pandemic medic) lost both of his arias (admittedly, often cut) but was at least able to demonstrate his verbal acuity and clean, ringing tone in the great accompanied recit, “Sventurata Sidon”. 

The opera’s concluding sections felt disproportionately rushed with Idamante’s extended execution scene with choral interjections mostly missing. In the programme book, the conductor explained that cuts were made “in such a way that we could present the special dramatic-musical streaks as concentratedly as possible for the audience to experience a thrilling and tense dramatic process.” Indeed, Idomeneo is a long work, but as is often the case, extensive meddling with the original score can result in confusing dramaturgy. The abrupt ending after “Torna la pace” robbed the audience of any real catharsis in what was otherwise an intriguing and musically rich traversal of Mozart’s early masterpiece.