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new production of Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden,
originally scheduled to have its première in March of 2020, was one of the earliest
casualties of the pandemic-related theatre closure that brought the 2019/20
season to a sudden halt. It would be another three years before the opera
finally reached the stage, but the wait was very much worth it. Although Sir
David McVicar’s staging provided the evening with a concentrated vision of the
drama, and Sir Simon Rattle’s musical direction was unfailingly genial, the
production succeeded primarily on the strength of the principal singers, whose
delight in the music remained palpable throughout the evening.
Without succumbing to traditionalism, Sir David McVicar’s staging had a flavour of the old school. There was no clever concept and no attempts to recontextualise the action by transposing it to an updated setting. Indeed, the drama took place neither in Crete nor any other recognisable locale: the set consisted of a large, uneven surface that sloped upwards towards the back of the stage and looked something like a relief map of a desert. During the overture a giant skull emerged from an opening in the floor, and it hung motionless above the stage for the duration of the first act, was set up on a low platform during the second act, and was suspended again in the third; its sole purpose seemed to be to remind us that death was, quite literally, hanging over the drama.
Magdalena Kožená (Idamante), Olga Peretyatko (Elettra), Andrew Staples (Idomeneo), and Linard Vrielink (Arbace) in Mozart's 'Idomeneo'. Simon Rattle, conductor. David McVicar, director. Berlin, Staatsoper unter den Linden, March 2023. © 2023 by Bernd Uhlig.
That there were no real changes of scenery was no bad thing. Instead, it allowed Sir David the space and freedom to create scenes that gathered force through the stylised movements of the characters and their concentrated moments of interaction. If the characters never really developed or displayed traits beyond their role as archetypes, it is perhaps because anything more would have been surplus to requirement; in its methodical, almost minimalist approach the staging traced an obvious but convincing line from opera seria to ancient theatre. However if the libretto was often distilled to its most basic conflicts, the clarity of its presentation and the inevitability of its situations yielded a drama that remained taut and compelling.
Andrew Staples (Idomeneo), Magdalena Kožená (Idamante), Anna Prohaska (Ilia), Olga Peretyatko (Elettra), Linard Vrielink (Arbace), Florian Hoffmann (Oberpriester des Neptun), Marie Sofie Jacob, Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein (Kreter:innen), Johan Krogius, and Friedrich Hamel (Trojaner) in Mozart's 'Idomeneo'. Simon Rattle, conductor. David McVicar, director. Berlin, Staatsoper unter den Linden, March 2023. © 2023 by Bernd Uhlig.
While the treatment of action was generally successful, the staging’s visual elements were occasionally baffling: when Elettra made her first appearance, accompanied by two white-masked, black-haired dancers who followed and accentuated her every movement, it felt as though we had been dropped unexpectedly into the world of Noh theatre, a sensation that was hardly diminished when, in the subsequent scene, Idomeneo and his followers showed up armed with samurai swords; yet the priests of Neptune and their idols seemed to have been borrowed from some half-remembered documentary on the south-sea islands. It seemed at times as if the visual world of the staging had been created solely to deny us the safety of a familiar setting.
There were, nonetheless, few elements that upset the balance of the storytelling and even fewer that prevented the singers and their performances from taking centre stage. If the cast was uniformly strong, Olga Peretyatko’s Elettra stood out if only for the obvious delight she brought to the role: Elettra’s desperation requires a degree of theatrical flourish that Ms Peretyatko managed to capture without resorting to overstatement. Her crisp, beautifully constructed lines were interspersed with knowing smiles and haughty waves of the hand that, together, added up to a near-flawless embodiment of the character. Yet even without the animation of her physical performance, the luxuriant warmth of her low notes, her carefully projected pianissimi, and her unaffected command of dynamic were remarkable: her recitatives were full of towering passion, her first and second act arias (especially ‘Tutte nel cor vi sento’) were superb and, just as the audience was settling in for a happy ending, she returned to the stage for a spirited ‘D’Oreste e d’Aiace’ that stood as one of the finest moments of the evening.
Anna Prohaska’s Ilia, while perhaps more understated, was equally impressive. Indeed it was a performance of such effortless grace that one was aware of the beauty of the music far more than the demands of creating it. Yet if Ilia is the opera’s most consistent source of selflessness and generosity of spirit, Ms Prohaska never allowed us to forget the deep conflict in her feelings for Idamante. In her magnificent first recitative she laid out the groundwork of the drama with absolute clarity before pivoting into a quietly arresting ‘Padre, germani, addio’. Yet her performance reached its greatest heights in the third act, in which the regal poise and tender resignation of ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’ led directly into a highly charged confession of feelings to Idamante.
Andrew Staples (Idomeneo) in Mozart's 'Idomeneo'. Simon Rattle, conductor. David McVicar, director. Berlin, Staatsoper unter den Linden, March 2023. © 2023 by Bernd Uhlig.
The same scene, culminating in the third act duet, was also a high point for Magdalena Kožená, whose excellent Idamante, even more than Idomeneo, occupied a place at the very heart of the drama. Her performance simmered with youthful anguish – whether lamenting the possible demise of Idomeneo in the first act, stinging with rejection and confusion in the second, or longing for death at the hands of the sea monster in the third – but it was rendered compelling though her ease of projection and her confidence in navigating the contours of the music.
If the staging seemed less convinced of Idomeneo’s eminence, Andrew Staples nonetheless provided the evening with several excellent arias, of which ‘Fuor del mar’, with its assured florid passages, was perhaps the finest; Mr Staples was also a crucial figure in both the trio of the second act and the quartet of the third, in which his delicate phrasing dictated the presiding tone of dispirited resignation. Even the largely functional figure of Arbace was given a strong reading from Linard Vrielink, whose ‘Se colà ne’fati è scritto’ was notable for its quiet resolve.
Throughout the evening, Sir Simon Rattle’s musical direction displayed a grand, somewhat relaxed manner that, without lacking in focus or drive, certainly never came across as rushed. Although he kept the accompanied recitatives moving at a pace that preserved their dramatic shape, his relative patience with the arias was well-tailored to the strengths of the singers, and his willingness to indulge in the work’s moments of ceremonial pomp and its interventions of divine terror resulted in a performance in which the nobility of the solo scenes was interspersed with flourishes of theatrical excitement. Yet it was ultimately his rapport with the singers that gave the evening so much of its musical distinction.