View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
6 November 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:35pm

Martin Kušej’s Idomeneo at the Royal Opera House is baffling and troubling

The production is alienating, and not a in a sexy, Brecht kind of a way.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Not since Damien Hirst has a life-size shark been quite so underwhelming. The centrepiece of provocative Austrian director Martin Kušej’s Idomeneo for the Royal Opera House (whose recent productions include a Josef Fritzl-inspired Rusalka) is a toothy, plastic affair that leers bloodily at the massed citizens of Crete, who sing about fleeing and running in terror while standing stock-still. As show-defining moments go it’s up there with the Men In Black-style heavies who tote guns with the kind of conviction you’d expect from a provincial cheerleading squad, and a High Priest who’s a refugee from the cast of Hair.

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: I’ve got nothing against Regietheater – the German concept-driven genre of “director’s theatre”. When applied intelligently it can transform a familiar work into something joyously strange and thrilling, its power lying in the friction between our knowledge and expectations and its subversive fulfilment. But Kušej’s Idomeneo is so cluttered with ideas, so baggy in concept, that it would take a chainsaw to find any conceptual traction in its slippery surface.

We lose a lot in Kušej’s rewrite. Mozart’s original sea-monster is a predictable casualty, but more unexpected are the sea itself – a looming and essential presence not only in the opera’s stage directions but also its score – and any sense of time and place. Robbed of context, we find ourselves shipwrecked in a generically totalitarian twentieth-century state (possibly Balkan, or Eastern European) ruled by a cult of leather-clad sixties hippies whose Age of Aquarius has been replaced by the decidedly fishy Age of Pisces.

This is an opera whose opposition between totalitarian dictatorship and liberal humanism, between superstition and atheism, is ripe for contemporary readings, as Anish Kapoor’s Glyndebourne production and Deutsche Oper Berlin’s confrontational 2003 show both proved. But where are Boko Haram and Isis in scenes of forced religious conversion and systematic social abuse? Elettra’s Furies are reimagined as children, clad in the white gym-clothes of Hitler Youth – child-soldiers in a conflict that refreshes itself anew with each generation. But it’s a symbol lost in the shouting clamour of warring messages and ideas.

Why is princely sidekick Arbace (the excellent Stanislas de Barbeyrac) transformed into a ranting street-musician, whose accordion remains silent? To what end the gas chamber that gushes noxious fumes in the background as he sings his Act II aria? And why is monarch Idomeneo so in thrall to a cult led by a poseur and buffoon (Krystian Adam) whose menace is about as convincing as his wig?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Most troubling in these scenes of dramatic chaos is the need for synoptic help from the surtitles. If you have to tell your audience what is going on then surely you’ve failed dramatically? The result is alienating, and not a in a sexy, Brecht kind of a way, but just straightforwardly offputting.

Musically things are better. Making his long-overdue Royal Opera debut, conductor Marc Minkowski directs a brisk and incisive account of the score, though blotted by an excess of fortepiano in the recitatives. He’s helped by the sweet singing of Sophie Bevan’s Ilia (“Zeffiretti Lusinghieri” is a highlight, exquisitely aided by the ROH’s woodwind) and some assertive work from Matthew Polenzani’s Idomeneo, but all characters are sabotaged by a lack of obvious motive. Declaiming his big aria “Fuor del Mar”, Idomeneo paces to and fro – with anxiety, anger, or because he has pins and needles in his foot? It’s unclear. And a quasi-seduction scene between Ilia and her soon-to-be-father-in-law is left strangely undeveloped. Is she warding him off or goading him on?

The decision to cast countertenor Franco Fagioli as Idamante is one that works better in theory than in practice. Originally written for a castrato, the role is more usually sung now by a mezzo-soprano or tenor. In theory, using a countertenor allows the director to exploit the tension between father and son (by preserving the correct gender) and also keeps the voice in the right octave for the ensembles. In practice, however, Fagioli makes such a strange sound, devoid of identifying consonants, and while his range and projection are impressive it’s hard to get over his vocal oddities and find a character beneath.

The Royal Opera’s first Idomeneo for over 20 years, also marking the UK debut of a major European director, came with no small weight of expectation. We were promised an operatic monster and instead we got a red herring. Definitely one to throw back.

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU