Idomeneo, Theater an der Wien, Vienna – review

The war is over, but the toll was high. All the protagonists carry their traumas. Ilia mourns her father, Idamante struggles to express himself, Elettra seeks hungrily for love and power, Idomeneo is failing. In the raw earth of the battlefield, planted still with the boots of the fallen, broken people struggle with their ghosts.

Damiano Michieletto’s new Idomeneo for Theater an der Wien is a lean updating of Mozart’s weighty opera seria. Paolo Fantin’s set is a vast trough of dirt, into which set elements are periodically lugged – a bed, a pile of suitcases, chairs, a banquet table. His handiwork is deft, his characterisations rounded and engrossing, his visual images consistently beautiful. This production extends the father-son conflict into an essay on the cycle of life. At the beginning, Ilia is pregnant; during the final ballets, Idomeneo and Elettra die, Ilia gives birth to her child, and Idamante, in a suit like his father’s, grasps what it means to be a father. The blood of the birth echoes the blood of the war – Michieletto stays with a strict aesthetic of shades grey (costumes: Carla Teti) for contrast with this red. The only exception is Elettra, presented here as the Miley Cyrus of Argos, constantly changing into different skimpy bling outfits, twerking for Idamante and, when this gets her nowhere, for the King. It all ends in tears.

Michieletto’s production is slick, sometimes to the point of glibness, with some arrestingly beautiful scenes and others that fall just the wrong side of cliché. But really, this should be called René Jacobs’ Idomeneo. With the Freiburger Barockorchester translating his eccentric gestures into gut-wrenchingly wonderful music, and with his unique understanding of pace and rhetoric, Jacobs gives his top-drawer singers everything they need to make this Idomeneo exquisite. And it is, to the extent that you wish, when the curtain falls, that you could hear it all again immediately.

In the title role, Richard Croft is everything you could want, combining emotional depth with musical refinement and precisely the vocal agility the part demands. Sophie Karthäuser is an Ilia who makes the listener feel every nuance of her predicament, with an underlying sense of warm generosity to make her character even more appealing. As Idamante, Gaëlle Arquez manages to look like a Japanese anime version of the ideal man, boyish, graceful and masculine all at once, and her sharper vocal colour lends her a contrasting edge to that of Ilia. Julien Behr’s Arbace is well rounded and empathetic, Marlis Petersen’s Elettra glittering and engagingly deranged.

The production goes on to Tokyo.

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