Idomeneo (Covent Garden)

© New Statesman, Mar. 1978




This first Covent Garden performance offered the inspired choice of Mozart as musical assistant to Götz Friedrich’s new production, with sets and costumes by Stefano Lazaridis. That’s not a wholly unfair way of putting it; the score itself was first designed and produced as an aid to stage action and spectacle. A typical first-night review of 1781 enthused solely about the scene-painting, as though opera were the equivalent of going to the pictures. If so, Mozart contributed film-music of genius. Sweeping orchestral brush-strokes fill in the coloured expanses of Ocean and Heaven, which unite and contrast in the C minor of Storm and E major of calm. All the musical ideas sound similarly generalized; arias as well as recitatives (admirably accompanied by John Constable) assume allegorical attitudes of Awe, Sacrifice, Love, Despair and so on. How apt that the modern inheritors of that heavily-capitalised vocabulary, namely the great Insurance Companies, should stand sponsor to the present production, which covers such notable hazards as Shipwreck, Risks from Sea-Serpents, and other Acts of Neptune.

    It is soon evident that King Idomeneus of Crete has adopted the wrong policy. His ship is tempest-tossed on return from Troy. Like a true legendary hero, he is ready to save his own skin by offering to sacrifice the first person to hand - a practice that persists to this day. In this version, the first person is his son, Idamantes. Affection prevails, and the vow is broken. The thwarted Neptune causes the Cretan coasts to be ravaged by a monster, which is duly slain by the brave young prince. His life is once again forfeit, this time for impiety. As he is about to he beheaded by his loving father, the captive Trojan princess Ilia offers her own life instead. Neptune, a notoriously fluctuating character, thereupon relents, and stipulates merely that Idomeneo should abdicate and be succeeded by Idamantes and Ilia. Instead of losing their heads they gain a joint crown.

    As we know from his letters, the young Mozart showed great respect for the Abbé Varesco's stilted and stereotyped text, and strove to illuminate it with musical illustrations, But the book remains so obdurately blank that commentators and producers alike have understandably sought to read meanings into it by reference to, for example, documentary biography (Mozart family relationships), Christianity (love rising triumphant over death), Freud (Oedipal love-hate between father and son, the latter already a castrato), and Marx (the revolutionary overthrow of a despotic regime).

    At least the music was convincingly interpreted. At first hearing, the score seems to be expressing everything in general terms and hence saying nothing in particular. But further listening brings a strong impression of banked fires, as if heated feelings were being deliberately repressed. Perhaps only dedicated specialists can penetrate to this inner warmth and life. For them, Idomeneo will then be found to contain “Mozart's most sublime operatic music”. Thus Colin Davis, under whose direction the orchestra spoke out eloquently in support of that highly deflation notion. It may be more than mere coincidence that Berlioz and Tippett, also much admired by the Music Director, have themselves drawn inspiration from the Trojan War – an apt enough image for a calm classical surface with hidden fires beneath. Dame Janet Baker's recent Lieder-interpretation has something of the same quality; and her comparatively cool account of Idamante had sudden flares of intensity, like her 1976 Cressida (another Trojan war veteran).

    Thus far it was clear that conviction could redeem or even transcend convention. But I felt that too much of the stage business was counter-productive. Götz Friedrich has been rightly admired for his way of opening out operas to show their wider human and social significance. But Idomeneo has so much more beauty than significance that the social points were not just stressed but strained. Mozart's Idamante would hardly have cast off crown and mantle at his coronation, however desirably democratic that gesture may now appear. Socialist realism surely suggests that life would still be tough for the toilers, even under the new enlightened regime. Even when Idom. is amended to Idam., as one edition calls them, it still means Idem for the proof Cretans. The most puzzling feature of all was that Ilia's rival Electra was suddenly required to kill herself, to her own evident distress and the unfeigned discomfiture of the other characters. This seemed either an unreasonably harsh judgment of a quite distinguished debut, or else an unduly liberal interpretation of the stage direction “exit”. On the whole I thought that the imposing music was not well served by such imposed effects.