A new production of Idomeneo, Mozart’s first really distinctive work for the stage from English Touring Opera’s artistic director and CEO James Conway is certainly an exciting prospect, as this company is frequently lauded for its stripped-back and communicative presentations of music and drama. As an opera, it’s quite a puzzle, caught between the old world of opera seria and a new dramatic world yet to be born. Mozart embroiders a workmanlike libretto with daring harmonies and orchestration, exploring innovative blends of chorus and soloist, and aria with recitative, lighting the path towards Figaro and Don Giovanni. But it’s also a work that can end up being rather baggy and has been subject to cuts and bowdlerisation, not least by Mozart himself.

Paula Sides, John Colyn-Gyeantey, Christopher Turner, Catherine Carby and Galina Averina
© Richard Hubert Smith

Varesco’s text might be a bit clunky, but the scenario itself is larded with thematic and conceptual potential: the relationship of religion to statecraft, regime change, or the treatment of refugees. Idomeneo returns with the vanquished Trojans to Crete, but he is shipwrecked on the way. To honour his salvation he promises to sacrifice whomsoever he should meet first. This is his son Idamante, in love with the captured Trojan Ilia, making up a love triangle with Agamemnon’s daughter Elettra. Idomeneo attempts to circumvent his vow by sending Idamante away, which fails because of a sea monster terrorising the island. He resolves ultimately to sacrifice his son following the exhortations of the people and his advisor Arbace. Idamante too is ready to die, but the voice of Neptune intercedes and instructs Idomeneo to give up his throne to his son and Ilia.

Conway trims quite a bit – though nothing Mozart hadn’t cut – making the piece of manageable length for a touring company. Conway dispensed with the final ballet, and the roles of the High Priest and Arbace were combined into one (sung by tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey). The design is graphic and elemental. The stage was divided into front and back by a partition of screens that would be rolled back to reveal a blue expanse behind, a kind of shoreline or threshold, from where the chorus would often implore or despair, backlit by intense blue or red glows. The foreground, Idomeneo’s palace, evoked Cretan terracotta, with a door leading to stage right. For director Conway the shoreline represents the world of the irrational and unknown, and the right is the world of culture and civilisation. Between the two there is a space for characters to come and understand their relationship to both. Eventually, the shipwrecked and the displaced cross the threshold to join the renewed and reconciled world of the end.

Catherine Carby, ETO Chorus and Galina Averina
© Richard Hubert Smith

This presentation sharpens the psychological dimensions of the drama, with the exterior influences of politics and religion intruding upon or overwhelming the characters. In the great sea monster scene, the chorus sing directly to Idomeneo, imploring answers about this calamity that intensifies his fear and shame – a vivid extension of his superego. The political themes are handled more obliquely than in other visions of this opera, more suggestive than rigidly conceptual: the vanquished Trojans were made to wear green triangles, for instance, and their outfits suggested the late Ottoman period. But Conway’s unfussy approach left the audience to draw their own conclusions about what meanings we might salvage.

Catherine Carby’s Idamante was idealistic and guileless, a naïf who is pure in feeling but relatively passive. Although freshly sung, lumpen blocking and movement made the prince an awkward stage presence, and the character fell a bit flat. Paula Slides’ performance as Elettra was electric, with Act 3’s “Oreste d’Ajace” burning with a mesmerising fury, oscillating between volcanic power and ethereal vulnerability.  Galina Averina’s Ilia, her love rival, presented a lighter and sweeter characterisation that made a good counterpart, and her “Zefiretti lusinghieri” was breathtaking. But the principals really wowed when they came together in Act 3’s dazzling quartet.

Galina Averina, Paula Sides, Catherine Carby and Christopher Turner
© Richard Hubert Smith

The titular king represented a role debut for Christopher Turner, who performed with intensity and authenticity, especially in the emotional extremes of the final sequence, where he prepares to sacrifice his son to appease the people and the Gods. “Fuor del mar” is the big number of the whole work, despatched with emotional rawness alongside gleaming passagework, and throughout the opera gracefully balanced the darkness, turmoil and nobility the character must channel with the lyricism and virtuosity demanded in the vocal writing.

ETO’s chorus was on fine dramatic and musical form. As a smaller gang of choristers than found in bigger houses, the singing is crisp and transparent, making for colourful and variegated characterisation in the crowd scenes. In the pit, the ETO band gave us stripped-back forces but an immediate and focused sound, heightening the intimacy and inwardness of the work rather than its fantastical character, with bold, expressive woodwinds and imaginative interventions from the timpani.