One of the less canonic Mozart operas, Idomeneo is a piece that stage directors tend to feel they have a licence to maul. And it was mauled with a vengeance last time around at Covent Garden by Martin Kusej, who pulled that tired old German Regietheater trick of turning everything into a story of totalitarian politics. With the essential wardrobe of dark glasses and long leather coats.
Tim Albery’s line in his new Garsington Opera production thankfully avoids those clichés. Not that it’s conventionally done with togas and a colonnade from the Acropolis. Instead, the major visual interest is provided by two large, abandoned shipping containers, and the costumes are a mix of 18th-century court dress and Peter Grimes. But it’s a seriously thought-through staging in which everything is purposeful.
The Grimesian costumes stress that, while this is a piece about a king who makes a foolish deal with a god, the god is Neptune, ruler of the sea; and it’s essentially a tale about a seafaring community, their lives determined by marine rules – which is close enough to Peter Grimes to justify the way Idomeneo looks like Captain Balstrode with a touch of Habsburg royalty.
When Neptune surfaces, dripping with slime – truly a creature from the deep – the spectacle makes up for Albery’s decision not to provide a sea monster, as the libretto asks. Instead, the punishment inflicted on Idomeneo’s fisherfolk is plague, given reality onstage by the disturbing, modern imagery of piled-up body bags.
The cast is strong, with Toby Spence as a handsome-voiced Idomeneo, and Caitlin Hulcup among the most powerfully convincing “boys” I’ve ever seen in the trouser-role of Idamante (originally written for male castrato). Add immaculately detailed contributions from the orchestra and chorus under Tobias Ringborg and you have one of the all-round winners on this summer’s country-house opera circuit.
The First Night of the Proms wasn’t in that league, but it did offer fresh, bright and unusually transparent playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, in a largely Russian programme of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet fantasy (done in the modern way) and Prokofiev’s rousing Alexander Nevsky (a cantata reworked from a 1930s film score, full of forceful, Stalinist-appeasing earworms that aren’t easy to forget).
Between them came an Elgar Cello Concerto from Argentine cellist-of-the-moment Sol Gabetta which was elegantly done but lightweight, without the intensity, punch or projection to fill the Albert Hall.
I know it’s time we stopped comparing every reading of this piece with those of Jacqueline du Pré, but her unresting ghost still haunts the Elgar, setting standards almost no one manages to equal.