Buxton Opera House – until 19 July 2018
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
On his way home from victory at Troy, Cretan king Idomeneo’s ship is caught in a dreadful storm. In desperation, he vows to Neptune to sacrifice the first thing he sees if he reaches dry land safely. Tragically, that turns out to be Idomeneo’s own son, Idamante, who has fallen in love with captured Trojan princess Ilia, herself secretly smitten with Idamante but hostile to all Greeks since the destruction of her city.
Idomeneo spends the rest of his opera trying work out how not to kill Idamante without bringing the wrath of Neptune on his Cretans: he fails spectacularly, alienating his bewildered son in the process and exposing Crete to the rampages of a terrible sea monster.
Here, in Stephen Medcalf’s vision, the ‘monster’ is Idomeneo’s own guilt, which possesses him physically, turning him into a gurning, rampaging menace on stage. Eventually, Neptune relents on the condition that Idomeneo hands his crown over to Idamante, with Ilia as queen. Varesco’s plot contains several problems, not least of which is Neptune’s volte-face from requiring human sacrifice to ordaining just and sensible rule over Crete – a scarcely credible cop-out for an ancient deity. But the bashed, hashed version of Apollodorus’ myth is merely a jumping off point, for this is an opera about Enlightenment leadership, nobility and personal sacrifice, in which duty and love are placed in dramatic conflict.
Medcalf’s thoughtful direction, and Isabella Bywater’s glorious design of a room choked by tidal waves of sand looking out to a distant sea, which magically transforms into a beleaguered ship during a terrifying storm scene, make Buxton’s unquestionably the best Idomeneo I’ve yet seen.
In military uniforms and puttees, the Greeks seem to have just got home from the First World War, good cultural shorthand for the level of psychological devastation wreaked on all sides by the fall of Troy. Paul Nilon is compellingly vulnerable and haunted as Idomeneo, his seasoned tenor sometimes almost raw with emotion. Heather Lowe’s stylish, freshly voiced and dramatically focused Idamante is brilliantly boyish and affecting, nicely paired with Rebecca Bottone’s steely, determined Ilia, a princess riven with horror at her own love for the enemy. Madeleine Pierard’s sassy, charismatic Elettra, a Greek princess who wants Idamante for herself, is a show-stopping sensation, bristling with passion and bitterness. The chorus scenes are magnificent, and conductor Nicholas Kok produces a clean, majestic sound from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and though timing can fall a little oddly, it’s a satisfying, often stunning listen.
Visually powerful, psychologically compelling, and superbly well sung, Buxton’s production effectively masks Idomeneo’s inherent drawbacks. But they still remain: Idomeneo is no sprightly Da Ponte human drama, but a long, serious and inward-looking piece, carefully unpicking its moral dilemmas with Baroque beauty and grandeur, but without any sense of urgency or narrative thrust, which is why it so often falls flat. This Idomeneo works because it is seriously well acted within a clear directorial vision: Lowe, Bottone, Pierard and Nilon deliver intense, deeply felt characters driven to actions we can comprehend by emotions we can feel.