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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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state (possibly Balkan, or Eastern European) ruled by a cult of leather-clad sixties hippies whose Age of Aquarius has been replaced by the decidedly fishy Age of Pisces.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?

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.