Tragedy always runs the risk of being overwhelming, and postwar stories invariably carry some of that dynamic. Yet in Idomeneo, rè di Creta, Mozart’s first great stagework, we find post-traumatic stress, loss of homeland and identity, unrequited love, jealous rage and, worst of all, a father’s order from a higher authority to murder his beloved son. Each one gets its airtime, delivered by a cast of only five principals, a resonant choir that reinforces the agonies of the storyline, and a fine orchestra to underpin it all.

Guanqun Yu (Elettra) © Monika Rittershaus
Guanqun Yu (Elettra)
© Monika Rittershaus

When Idomeneo, King of Crete, is homeward bound after his victory in the Trojan War, he runs into trouble on the sea, and swears an oath to Neptune, God of the Sea, that if he is saved, he will sacrifice the first man he meets on shore. Neptune obliges him, but as luck would have it, the first man he runs into is his own beloved son, Idamante. The king knows he must honour his vow, but is tortured by its implications, and rather than admit to his predicament, rejects his boy’s welcome and affections. That leaves the prince confused and heartbroken, not knowing what he’s done to deserve such aversion.

Meanwhile, Ilia, the Trojan princess who lost her parents and homeland as a result of the war, is torn up by her love for Idamante, son of her people’s greatest enemy. At the same time, Elettra, daughter of the Greek king Agamemnon, is as jealous of Ilia as she is angry about Idamante’s loose command of enemy prisoners. Finally, Arbace, the king’s trusted friend, tries to support the sovereign in his resolve, while aware of the consequence the boy’s murder would carry.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Ilia) © Monika Rittershaus
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Ilia)
© Monika Rittershaus

Against this entangled configuration of characters, Gideon Davey’s stage design was strictly minimalistic. Only the bare wooden caskets of Ilia’s family members gave her a chance to grieve more convincingly in Act 1; only a cache of Empire tables served as pedestals in Acts 2 and 3. Otherwise, the stage was dead empty; the walls painted with slate-blue and grey vertical lines, much like the gradient-coloured verticals in Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Franck Evin’s sublime lighting made the walls more incandescent, and on a couple of occasions, the upstage wall thankfully rose to make space for the choir. 

The Trojan War was over by the time our action started, but two unscripted pantomimes gave Jetske Mijnssen's production its commensurate portion of gore. In Act 1, the members of a bourgeois family, probably Ilia’s, line up for a group photo, but then start cutting one another’s throats. Three of the family go down before the action freezes against a busy vocal background. Later, the happy bride cliché includes another shocker: six various-aged women are proudly primping white wedding gowns when each suddenly starts to bleed from the head, waist or heart. A vignette that underscores the adage that “Nobody ever said a marriage was easy”.

Of the five principal singers, Joseph Kaiser made a convincing transformation from shipwrecked vagabond to King. The turmoil of his conscience was palpable, but I missed more variation in the timbre of his voice. As Elettra, the elegant Guanqun Yu fired up the stage with the acid her role demands, and her soprano was a powerhouse, while her middle range sometimes had trouble finding its feet. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller has a refreshing young soprano, and fit her role in this debut beautifully despite a wardrobe glitch: as a displaced Trojan, her wearing stilettos was implausible, and the shoes visibly inhibited both her grace and ease on the stage.

Joseph Kaiser (Idomeneo) and Anna Stéphany (Idamante) © Monika Rittershaus
Joseph Kaiser (Idomeneo) and Anna Stéphany (Idamante)
© Monika Rittershaus

As Idamante, Anna Stéphany's voice was consistently silvery and clear, even if, through no fault of her own, she was made into an effete prince. Airam Hernández was a terrific Arbace, whose telling line before the resolution on Act 3, “Things are going from bad to worse!” summed up the tenor of events in the Cretan court hitherto. His voice was as variable as his function, though: sometimes hard-lined and demonstrative, other times tender and supportive.

Giambattista Varesco’s libretto set the storyline, but Mozart’s score included challenging solo parts for the woodwinds, brass and percussion. Under conductor Giovanni Antonini, the fine Orchestra La Scintilla gave a marathon performance here in Zurich. The continuo, shared by Claudius Herrmann (cello), Dariusz Mizera (double bass) and Andrea del Bianco (harpsichord), deserves special mention. As do the chorus, some-80 singers who, under the direction of Ernst Raffelsberger, underscored the narrative with perfectly calibrated vocals, and movement that transpired only with good reason. At the end of this long production – longer, perhaps, given the paucity of set variation – the principals and orchestra were pretty much spent, but I felt sure that the energetic chorus could have gone on far longer.