Mozart - Idomeneo

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday March 21 2010

Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer. Production: Ivo van Hove. Sets and lighting: Jan Versweyveld. Costumes: Lies Van Assche. Video: Tal Yarden. Idomeneo: Gregory Kunde. Idamante: Malena Ernman. Ilia: Sophie Karthäuser. Elettra: Alexandrina Pendatchanska. Arbace: Kenneth Tarver. Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno: Nigel Robson. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

The quotation from The Economist was about poets and their poetry, not singers and their warbling, but reading it the morning after Idomeneo in Brussels I was struck by its relevance to what we’d heard: “… teasing, finicky word players who often write in disappointingly short lines and seem to lack the ambition, the emotional force, the rhetorical reach, and even the range of subject matter of great poets of the past. Where to go these days to find the real thing?” Just change a few words here and there…

Our complaint, or more particularly the frequent complaint of one of my French friends, is that too many singers these days “finassent.” If you look “finasser” up in the dictionary you’ll probably find it means “to nitpick.” What this friend means is that too many of today’s singers seem to focus parsimoniously on sweetness of timbre and shaping of phrase, and too few open up their throats and let rip (“sing frankly” is how he puts it in French) à la Del Monaco or Dame Gwyneth.

On paper the cast of Idomeneo looked promising. In the theatre it turned out to be patchy. Some of that might have been due to the set design, at times wide open to the rear of the stage, but the acoustics at La Monnaie are usually good and the house is comfortably small. No, in the case of Alexandrina Pendatchanska at least, this was definitely a case of “finassing” when something more overtly thrilling was needed. She had a very sweet voice and shaped it carefully and tastefully. Now, I’m not suggesting Elettra demands a Gwyneth Jones (supposing one were available). But the higher she sang, the quieter, apparently by design, so just when you hoped you might be thrilled you weren’t. The climax of her big Act 1 set piece was simply inaudible over the orchestra. Yet I’m almost certain she had reserves of power and volume to spare; she was just using them too sparingly.

This tendency towards vocal mimsiness is in addition to the general downsizing of voices per repertoire. Time was we were so used to Margaret Price and Dame Tin Knickers as the Countess that we turned our noses up at Lella Cuberli. There was nothing inherently wrong with Sophie Karthäuser yesterday, but I wonder if she’d have had a leading Mozart role on a major stage in the 70s. What was most remarkable about Malena Ernman was her ability to act a man – something she’s had a lot of practice at, it’s true (e.g. in Agrippina in the same house). Indeed, it took the old lady to my left some time to realise that, with her long sideburns, natty dark suit and mannish movements, Ernman wasn’t the real thing. But the acting was fairly good overall, that wasn’t the trouble…

Kenneth Tarver’s voice was a touch green or tart and his intonation was sometimes hazy, but he was more generous with his sound and took more risks than the girls; and Gregory Kunde went the whole hog, which was a relief after so much vocal mincing around (and come to think of it proved that there was no problem with the sets or acoustics) and actually woke the audience up and got some proper applause. Other than Kunde, the real stars were the orchestra under Rohrer, who seems to be in the pit every where we go these days, and above all the chorus.

The acting, as I said, was good, but overall the production was not. It was a standard update to the present day in contemporary warring states, opening with film footage of Idomeneo raising his young son and watching Al Qaeda on the TV news. After that it was set mainly in the perfectly reproduced ugliness of a Crowne Plaza conference room with gloomy, sage green wallpaper, cheap, flat, dull-gold aluminium mouldings, a nasty fitted carpet and stackable plastic chairs (that got kicked and thrown around a great deal in moments of drama). The walls rose from time to time to reveal the bare stage behind and giant video projections: scenes of war, a cargo plane discharging armoured cars, the arrival of a coffin draped in the stars and stripes… It was a staging could have been used for any number of updates, including but not limited to (as they say in the US) Händel and Rossini.

That it was somehow fidgety – e.g. characters going out through doors between verses in mid-scene and coming back in again, or Idomeneo forever putting down and taking up the notes for a speech – was a minor irritation. But for tragedy to work we need to believe in the dignity and nobility of the key players, and one problem with these updates is that by portraying the heroes as sleazy or potentially sleazy (or just plain ordinary) modern politicians (think Berlusconi, Clinton or, for the plain ordinary, Gordon Brown ) they seriously limit our sympathy with their plight. Another is that if you aim to show the full awfulness of modern politics and the full horror of war, you have to do it very well indeed; that is tough when your material is singers and chorus members and opera extras. This particular production failed to make much of what, as written, should be moments of hair-raising drama, e.g. when a son recognises a beloved father he thought dead, while the father knows he has promised to sacrifice the son; and failed to bring off other such moments introduced as part of the konzept: there was no sea serpent at the end of act 2, but a terrorist attack in the conference room, in the presence of cameras, killing innocent children present. This was so weakly handled it took a while for us poor spectators to grasp (thanks mostly to close-ups of the dead, bloodied children on the screen) what was happening.

There were two intervals, so the show ran for nearly four hours in total (“It’s very long and a bit repetitive,” as the usherette put it). As we had a train back to Paris, we left before act 3, but with no regrets.

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