Saturday, 13 August 2022

Opera’s shipping containers deliver a starkly staged treat

EXPECTATIONS of a balmy summer evening to enhance the annual pilgrimage to Garsington Opera in the spectacular

EXPECTATIONS of a balmy summer evening to enhance the annual pilgrimage to Garsington Opera in the spectacular setting of the Getty family’s Wormsley Estate were somewhat dampened by ever-darkening banks of cloud.

However, the sense of impending storms ahead was neatly consistent with the bleak plot of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, whose first night we had come to experience.

King Idomeneo, returning from the siege of Troy and saved from drowning by Neptune, vows to return the compliment by sacrificing the first person he sees on reaching home.

Catastrophically, this is his own son, Idamante. A further complication is the fraught love triangle between Idamante, captive Trojan princess Ilia and Greek princess Elettra, creating a potent mix of unbearable tension between fatherly devotion, a promise and the pain of love.

Such raw, dramatic intensity inspired some of Mozart’s most audacious writing.

The opera premiered in January 1781. Garsington’s 2016 production is directed by Tim Albery, conducted by Tobias Ringborg and designed by Hannah Clark. A cleverly devised, stark set comprises two freight containers, creating a diagonal sweep across the stage with a picture of rough seas as a backdrop. One container is ingeniously used as a scene-changer, the doors opening and closing to reveal different interiors.

For some, the eclectic mix of eras might have been disconcerting, whether modernish costumes alongside 17th or 18th century dresses, Elettra coming on stage in such a dress and lighting a cigarette, or the appearance of 21st century drinks dispensers and cups. One needed to look beyond it for the context of Ancient Greece, Troy and the power of the gods. An excellent cast included Toby Spence as Idomeneo, Caitlin Hulcup as the soprano version of Idomeneo’s son Idamante, Louise Alder as Ilia and Rebecca von Lipinski as Elettra, all with formidable parts to carry off.

Toby Spence had monumental arias in acts one and two, the second of which was particularly demanding, expressing his extreme suffering and fear of the worst from the gods.

Caitlin Hulcup, in constant dialogue with either Ilia or Idomeneo, carried the male role well and sang superbly. Rebecca von Lipinski excelled in a fabulous aria in act two, expressing her joy at leaving Crete, hoping that her joint expulsion with Idamante would boost her chances of requited love.

Act two drew to a close with some exceptional choruses (the chorus was top-class throughout), a gorgeous trio between Idomeneo, Idamante and Elettra, and the dramatic splitting of the stage — a jagged fissure between the two freight containers amidst a storm taken by the Cretans to be the gods’ punishment. “Who is the guilty one?” they cried — a cue for more self-flagellation by Idomeneo.

Act three, as always, is where all resolutions and conclusions take place. Unaware that the Oracle was about to come to the rescue and free Idomeneo from his pledge to Neptune as, knife in hand, he procrastinates, or that he will order Ilia and Idamante to take over the kingdom, the main characters had much anguish to give vent to.

Ilia began with an aria declaring her love for the doomed Idamante, who then joined in. A fabulous quartet followed, while Arbace (Timothy Robinson) lamented the plague and devastation. The final chorus was stunning.

But if there was one loser from the Oracle’s good intentions, it was the embittered Elettra. Her final heart-wrenching aria was outstanding, marking out Rebecca von Lipinski’s performance as something quite special.

The orchestra under Tobias Ringborg played responsively, in perfect sympathy with the singers.

All stage movements were impeccably choreographed and the visual effect throughout was always satisfying, continuing to impress even as the cast took their respective and collective bows.

If there was any anticipation of teething troubles on this first night, none was apparent. And if it was raining as we left, no one gave it a second thought — the weather is, after all, a mere sideshow to what Garsington does best, which is to produce opera performances that break ground and inspire.

This one certainly did.

Review: Trevor Howell

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