At the end of Act 2 of Mozart's Idomeneo, the people flee the Cretan port in terror at the storm that the God Poseidon has sent as a punishment.
For me, that moment epitomises why Katie Mitchell's new production of the piece for English National Opera doesn't entirely gel: how can you stage a mythical opera about a God-fearing people in a contemporary, secularised society?
Mitchell doesn't quite provide the answer, I'm afraid, but there are nevertheless several things to enjoy in her staging. One can see why she was tempted to try and make the opera more relevant: all those gods and Trojans and long-lost sons don't seem to have much to do with twenty-first-century London, after all. So it's staged in a kind of chic modern hotel, fabulously designed by Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales, with the waves crashing through the windows (thanks to Fifty-nine Productions' outstanding video design, which also lends atmosphere to Poseidon's storm).
This ought to work quite well, since hotels are generally places of continuous movement and transience, but in reality several of the scenes are seriously lacking in imagination. Too often, the main character sits singing a monologue to him- or herself while Mitchell has the waiters and servants walking across the stage busying themselves. There's a witty moment of interaction between Electra and a waiter during her Act 2 aria, but on the whole I began to tire of the constant unnecessary movement, which had often been more carefully choreographed than the singers' own actions and gestures. Cliché after cliché hit us, with the cleaning ladies' antics in the departure lounge (Mitchell's clever re-conception of the Cretan port) creating a jarring effect during one of the opera's most serious moments, and generalised references to conflict in the modern world.
It's a shame, because in terms of the acting, there was actually very little old-fashioned operatic cliché. But this opera is surely about the contrast between private emotions and public spectacle, and it often felt like an intrusion to have the main characters' arias intruded on by actors walking across the stage without obvious motivation. And why so much sitting around doing nothing?
Musically, the evening was of good quality, while lacking something in the way of finesse and impact. I think it really worked to have the role of Idamante played by a tenor rather than a mezzo: somehow the character has more pathos and dignity. Robert Murray's interpretation was passionate and hard-working, though he lacked the ideal bright ardour and nuance this repertoire needs. Similarly, Sarah Tynan's Ilia wants nothing in terms of effort and boasted some strong top notes, but she does not have the ideally smooth, floating quality that someone like Rebecca Evans has brought to the role.
Emma Bell's Electra packed the biggest punch and really made something of the character, but to my ears her instrument is slightly too dramatic and raw, even for this part. Paul Nilon made a decent stab at the title role, gaining huge applause for his big coloratura aria, and there was something movingly honest about him. However, I must confess that I found his singing rather effortful and the tone at the top not quite as ideally full as it might be in an ideal world, not withstanding the fact that this is a very taxing role.
For me, one of the strongest elements of the performance was the choral singing: when they were fleeing Poseidon's rainy wrath in particular, the ENO ensemble was in full flow. For that, all credit to Music Director Ed Gardner, whose work on this production seems truly to have been inspiring. Something else I noticed was the general clarity of diction from all concerned – to the extent that it was very noticeable when the singers diverged from the text being projected on the surtitles – which enhanced the transmission of the meaning of the libretto, especially in the recitatives (though these could have done with more pace). And although I would have liked a little more contrast, shape and colour, the orchestral reading was also of a very high quality.
As the run continues, no doubt things will sharpen, the artists will relax, and the performance will become more full-blooded. In the meantime, this is still a very respectable presentation of the young Mozart's first all-out masterpiece. For that alone, it should not be missed.
Photo Credits: Steve Cummiskey