Saturday, 26 June 2010


25/6/10, ENO

3 hrs 25 mins. Katie Mitchell's latest take on two of her favourite themes. One is the old "Dad promises to sacrifice the first living thing he sees to win the gods'/God's favour, then discovers in horror it's his firstborn" story. She did it with Iphigenia at the National, the girlish heroine eagerly embracing her martyrdom; she did it with Handel's Jephtha at ENO (about which I remember little except for its length and generally static quality, though I suspect it was rather moving at the time); and now she's done it with Mozart. The other is the legacy of Troy, explored in the Trojan Women at the National and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Young Vic.

A production full of Mitchell tropes. There was the wide, flat set, with lots of movement laterally across the stage but little depth, which gives the impression of viewing everything through some great picture window but makes handling the chorus a challenge. There were the dancing couples (appropriate on this occasion, during the scenes of celebration after Idomeneo's return). There was the video (limited on this occasion to shots of flowers and trees on what looked like 16mm film, projected onto a screen in a sort of conference room while Ilia sang of pastoral beauties; and to a wonderful seascape seen through the [picture] window of the family villa). There was the modern dress, which made them look like a family of wealthy Greek shipping owners surrounded by servants and staff and well-dressed hangers-on. There were the witty updatings: the scene in which Electra and Idamante prepare to set sail from Crete took place in a ferry departure lounge, bright sunlight streaming in from the door to the quay at one side, the posh folks secluded in an airport-style business lounge on the other; Ideomeno returned from the wars looking like a US soldier in desert combats. There were the Trojans, in distressed party frocks and ballgowns.
And there was the very busy business: in the first scene Ilia and Idamante come across as a pair of spoilt brats singing of love and sipping drinks brought in by black-aproned bistro-style waiters while people in business suits scurry across the stage, opening and closing doors self-importantly. The waiters were a constant, as were the business suits, as was the scurrying: there was much to-ing and fro-ing during the climactic scene on the beach as people brought on arc-lights to illuminate the sacrifice and a bodybag. Some might have found it distracting: I thought it was all justified, partly because it created a convincing milieu which helped make the emotional journey of the characters convincing; partly because it's a long piece and some of the arias are very long and, agreeable though the music is, it helps to have something to look at.

Tellingly though, there was relatively little business in the high points, which included a spectacular and pain-wracked solo for Paul Nilon as Idomeneo during the party scene which deservedly brought the house to a halt. Nilon was generally the key to the evening's success because he was absolutely convincing in his anguish at every stage.

Sarah Tynan sang prettily as Ilia and looked the part. Robert Murray was a rather too beefy Idamante. Emma Bell was Electra, wittily portraying her as a spoilt and scheming little rich girl well on the way to becoming an alcoholic lush. This made her mad scene and suicide at the end entirely convincing; and she did a witty drunk turn during the party; but in the very next scene this pantomime villain sang a beautiful song of departure which was difficult to take as seriously as was perhaps intended.

The text I think was subtly massaged. No mention of a sea monster rampaging across the island, only of a disastrous and destructive storm.

It was a very hot night and there were empty seats all around the auditorium, including immediately in front of us. A price break? People who couldn't face the Coliseum on such a steamy night? Dr T very cross with someone sneezing loudly in the row behind us. I very distracted by a young girl of about eight or ten just in front who fanned herself vigorously with her programme throughout: heaven knows what she made of it all but (apart from the fan) she sat very quietly.

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