The last time Mozart’s Idomeneo was performed in Melbourne was in 1978 at the Princess Theatre. Mounted by Victorian Opera’s previous incarnation, Victoria State Opera, it was a lavish production designed by John Truscott – an artist with the keenest and most demanding eye for detail – and starred the internationally renowned Australian tenor Ronald Dowd in the title role.
Why it has taken forty-five years for one of Mozart’s most sublime operas to be given another major production is a mystery. Is “opera seria” too “difficult” for today’s opera lovers? Is it too static and lacking in visual interest? Any concerns about the latter were quickly put to rest during the Overture. Signaling an ongoing collaboration between Victorian Opera and Opera Australia, this production employed modern technology to striking effect. All those years ago, the concept of a Video Designer was as foreign as Facebook; last night, David Bergman’s video design revealed how successfully it can be used to reflect and heighten emotion.
Although proportioned for the smaller space of the Sydney Opera House, Michael Yeargan’s austere set design provided the perfect canvas. While the formality of the grey walls and white doors was in keeping with the formality of “opera seria” style, what were actually white walls could also be transformed into scenes of verdant bliss, tumultuous oceans and roiling storm clouds or depictions of engulfing black despair and seething blood-red rage. The translucent capability of the walls was used sparingly, making the procession of monster ravaged citizens carrying their dead in front of and behind the back wall all the more telling as the drama reached its climax.
Two of the most powerful video effects came in Elettra’s arias: the first in which her blue dress seemed to merge with the heaving waves and the second, towards the end of the opera, where thwarted passion reaches a fever pitch of vindictive fury. Olivia Cranwell’s abundant red hair against the swirling red background, her passionate acting and vocal command in what is one of the most dramatic of Mozart’s arias, was tremendously exciting and deserved the applause she was accorded. This daughter of Agamemnon, the focus of Strauss’s Elektra, presented by Victorian Opera last year, is a character who keeps on giving – a gift to any soprano able to master the technical challenges presented by the composers inspired by her.
A further dynamic component was the revolving stage, which director Lindy Hume used in contrasting ways, including the slow trudge of Trojan prisoners and the formal dance steps of Idomeneo’s courtiers. Choreography for the chorus was quite complicated at times, but appeared to go smoothly whether on or off the revolve. Almost all extended orchestral passages were accompanied by some kind of visual activity, including various arrangements of a large collection of white chairs.
Not that the audience necessarily felt the need for anything more than the superb playing from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra – another ongoing and most welcome collaboration. The wind playing was truly exceptional, and the brass (some terrific work on the part of the horns) and strings displayed what a work of genius Mozart’s score is. It was one ravishing moment after another – and also a great credit to the conducting skills of Benjamin Bayle.
So, how do we relate to the characters and the story? The Trojan War and its aftermath remains a bedrock of Western culture, continuing to inspire “pity and terror” in its many manifestations. In Idomeneo, we see a shipwrecked Cretan king who is saved by Neptune and, in return, vows that he will sacrifice the first person he meets. To his horror, it is his son, Idamante. Much of the pathos of the opera resides in Idomeneo’s inner torment and Idamante’s incomprehension as to why his father is rejecting him. Steve Davislim, another Australian tenor with a significant international career, has a voice of considerable warmth and beauty, capable of generating the poignant emotion that left some teary eyed as Idomeneo prepared to kill his son. He also has excellent projection and sufficient agility to negotiate the coloratura passages of a fiendishly difficult aria with notable success. The combination of vocal weight, beauty of tone and flexibility is not readily found in a tenor. Davislim was also a convincing actor in a production that was sometimes an uneasy blend of old and new, especially with regard to costumes.
Originally written for a castrato and then revised by Mozart for tenor, Idamante is often sung by a mezzo-soprano nowadays. Although it transpired that Catherine Carby was a little unwell, her performance was generally strong in all respects, and featured gleaming, satin-smooth top notes. Her interactions with Davislim’s Idomeneo were deeply moving.
As Ilia, captured daughter of the defeated Trojan King Priam, Kathryn Radcliffe gave a well-projected performance as she portrayed Ilia’s fight against her love for Idamante, the son of her Greek enemy. Her softer singing was particularly impressive, secure and gracefully musical. Why she was dressed in skin-tight modern clothes much of the time, however, was baffling.
The other singer who had soldiered on in the face of illness was Michael Dimovski as Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace. Although a little under-powered on the night, his attractive clear tenor voice made a pleasing impression.
Tenor James Egglestone was an appropriately assertive High Priest, bringing vocal and dramatic vitality to the role. Simon Meadows reminded us of the existence of a commanding bass baritone voice in his short role of the Voice of Neptune as he issued a last minute reprieve. Mozart wrote parts for so many tenors in this opera, particularly if Idamante is sung by a tenor; in this performance, the variety of tenor timbres reminded listeners how different they can be. There was even an extra one in the capable quartet of soloists from the chorus.
And what a splendid chorus it was – a mixture of very experienced and emerging professional singers. There was plenty of energetic ensemble singing, but the highlight was the beautifully nuanced extended chorus in Act 3.
This collaboration of a vast array of talents – musical, creative, theatrical and administrative – has resulted in allowing Melbourne to experience (finally!) a great work in an outstanding production.
Photo credit Charlie Kinross
Heather Leviston reviewed Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, presented by Victorian Opera and Opera Australia at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, on July 4, 2023.