Monday, 3 November 2014

REVIEW of Martin Kušej's IDOMENEO ★★★ Shark without enough bite

Sophie Bevan (Ilia) and Matthew Polenzani (Idomeneo) 
By Mary Grace Nguyen 
Mozart’s earlier opera Idomeneo first performed in 1781, 5 years prior to Le Nozze de Figaro, is regarded as one of his maturer operatic works, which is honey-soaked in mythology, and tales of rulership and fatherhood. Sea monsters, princesses and Greek soldiers permeate the opera’s sublime score; we find similar musical traces in some of his later works including Don Giovanni and Requiem. Unfortunately Austrian director Martin Kušej and his regietheatre (translated as 'director’s theatre' in German) production with Annette Murschetz’s minimalistic, rotating stage - set in no particular time or space - let the show down through its sheer lack of imagination and inability to inspire the audience.

Yet Kušej would argue that despite being lumped with the regietheatre crowd, he works collaboratively with production teams and doesn’t understand what regietheatre means, anyway.

For a start there's no hint of a divine creature in this production, but that of a man. Kusej says, “... I don’t believe in gods. Religion, ideology — it’s all a fake.” So, we set off with a re-written story. Consider that the original is based on King Idomeneo’s vow to the god Neptune who must sacrifice the life of the first human he sets his eyes on to survive a sea storm; luckily he lives but, shamefully, his son Idamante is the victim. For Kušej's production religion is ditched for realpolitik and Idomeneo rationalises the killing of his son for the sake of his throne.
Father and son: Polenzani & Franco Fagioli (Idamante)
The semi-love triangle remains intact nonetheless, which shakes up these political tension between Idamante and Ilia, daughter of Idomeneo’s enemy. Elettra, the adamant Princess of Argos and Greek ally to the King, wants to rule Greece with Idamante as her betrothed husband, which adds more juice to the dramatic piece, and some hearty arias.

These slight amendments by Kušej foreshadow many of the arbitrary and abstract concepts thrown onto the stage: red flags to symbolise rebellion; children dressed in white vests and shorts to represent a prosperous future; heaps of bloodied clothes to depict the number of war dead; and a giant shark (as oppose to a mythic sea monster) to signify a made-up sacrilegious cult. This somewhat modern and minimalistic take of the opera, with large rooms sliding through with things you wouldn't expect, is quite artsy.  In some scenes of act I and act II they were set amongst rain, which was audibly enhanced simultaneously by the ROH's orchestra and brilliant conducting of Marc Minkowski. 

Yet these gestures were often enigmatic and ambiguous. The audience were left trying to fill in the gaps as oppose to figuring out what the so-called regietheatre director Kušej was trying to say about the opera. It seemed that the cold moving stage didn’t move me nor engage my interest as much as I would have liked particularly for a score brimming with warmth and affection. 
Austrian director Martin Kušej
The French conductor Minkowski and the Royal Opera House orchestra were on top form splendidly enchanting the audience with Mozart’s spellbinding work. American Tenor Matthew Polenzani acted as a Tony Soprano version of Idomeneo; yet his dewy voice painted another story about the love for his son and his position as a feeling King that was vocally distant from a tyrant. Sophie Bevan sang expressively and beautifully as the moral captive presented in a white sexy Athenian dress. Malin Byström needed a bit of warming up before easing into her role however. ‘Tutte nel cor vi sento furie del cupo averno’ was promising enough, but her diction wasn’t always clear. She perfectly clashed with Bevan’s physical image dressed in a navy tight-fitted business suit with red killer heels to match.

Also making their debuts to Covent Garden, amongst Minkowski and Kušej, were Argentinian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli as Idamante and French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Arbac. Kušej decided against a mezzo-soprano for Fagioli; a voice I haven’t heard of before, which also took some time to get used to but soon realised was rather fruity and unique once acquainted with. He was wobbly when he first entered the stage, yet this was redeemed as he continued to remain consistent and impassioned throughout. Barbeyrac  didn’t make a large impression on me, but I can imagine his singing becoming perfect as the production goes on. Full praise goes to all of the chorus singers for working hard on the stage being pulled and tugged by gangsters that were plucked out of a Matrix film or rock band like Kiss, minus the wild make up.
When asked by Neil Fisher whether he was worried about how he would be received by London audiences, Kušej said: “I don’t care. You can’t imagine what I’ve already survived” Kušej has been booed at and ridiculed for his extreme productions, which he regrettably also had to face this evening: the opening night. A particular choice by the Royal Opera House was to implement a long ballet sequence at the end with no singing or words, which was ghastly to watch but lovely to listen to. Just before this took place, these words were projected on the curtain: ‘the souls of the people are cold. Rigid...’ and I couldn't help but think that there were a few frozen members of the audience in the amphitheatre. That’s for sure. 

The production is showing until 24th November. Please click here for more information.
I purchased my own ticket for this viewing.

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