When planning its Peter Sellars double-whammy for the autumn tour, Glyndebourne could hardly have expected the fairly comprehensive thumbs down meted out by the national press to his new staging of Mozart's first operatic masterpiece at the festival. Eight years before, with one or two exceptions (myself included), more or less the same critics had greeted Sellars's staging of Handel's Theodora with unmodified rapture. I remain slightly puzzled by the disparity in reactions to the two events because they are essentially the same production in outline and in detail. In a sense, Handel's oratorio offers the easier option to the producer, because, not being a music drama in the strictest sense of the word (although written for performance in a theatre), it is a theatrical tabula rasa, conceived to evoke visualization in the imagination of the audience. Sellars's imagination is as interesting as anyone else's - in theory, at any rate.
As one of the greatest examples of opera seria ever written (a limiting appelation, I accept, for Mozart's characteristically unique fusion of the Baroque Metastasian model and the French-inspired, neo-Classical tragédie-lyrique of Gluck), Idomeneo demands theatrical engagement in every bar - or rather, almost every bar, as the composer himself had to admit when he made drastic cuts before the first Munich performance in 1781 and revised the score for a concert performance in Vienna five years later. However admirable it may have been at the main festival this summer to perform all of the music Mozart composed in 1780-1 for Idomeneo, including the almost invariably cut concluding ballet, Glyndebourne needed a pacier director than Sellars to bring the entire score to life. The resulting dullness, compounded by Simon Rattle's lethargic, Harnoncourtesque conducting on the first night (I gather things got zippier later), proved a resounding setback to Idomeneo at the address which put this great opera on the map back in 1951.
When I heard that Sellars had decreed that Idomeneo would be performed in exactly the same edition on tour, I though Glyndebourne had gone collectively mad, a group of crazy acolytes blindly following their guru's edicts whatever the consequences. Happily, sanity - up to a point - prevailed. Even though the production remains a disaster of colossal proportions (and surely unrevivable at the festival), it is marginally less of a buttock-numbing penance thanks to practical cuts. Clearly these happened late in the day, as George Loomis's programme note argues passionately for a complete Idomeneo. Both of Arbace's arias went - though, thankfully, not his wonderful accompagnato preceding the second, 'Sventurata Sidon', one of Mozart's greatest orchestral recitative narratives - and the ballet, credited in the programme to Mark Morris, was dropped. Apparently the two dancers had had an accident and been advised not to do the ballet; but they were fit enough, alas, to upstage Ilia's and Idamante's arias as the singing characters' alter egos - zzzzzz - throughout the opera's three-and-three-quarter-hour duration.
Sellars's direction merely regurgitates all the familiar old ticks that have constituted his style since he hit the big time with Nixon in China in Houston back in 1987. Here, the choral 'signing' looked formulaic and even less convincing than in Theodora (when they stop gesturing, they look like a chorus standing around doing sweet FA in an amateur production - which, I suggest, is the real giveaway about Sellars's directing skills). As for the principals, only Marie Arnet - who had sung some Ilias at the festival for Christiane Oelze - looked comfortable. Cara O'Sullivan was unflatteringly costumed in trouser suits designed for the more willowy Anne Schwanewilms. Their singing was so-so; but this is a difficult opera to cast. Ilia used to be sung by Countesses and Donna Elviras; today Glyndebourne casts Barbarinas and lightweight Paminas. Arnet sounded sweet at first, but tired by Act 3. O'Sullivan always seemed at full-stretch in Elettra's angry music. Peter bronder's Idomeneo should have been an improvement on the festival casting, but he, like Philip Langridge, was foxed by the bravura Act 2 aria. Why go through such torture when a Mozart-authorized simplified version exists? Julianne De Villiers looked good but sounded sour as Idamante, hardly justifying the inclusion of 'No la morte' (not one of Mozart's greatest inspirations) in Act 3. The chief pleasure came from the chorus - a truly vintage Glyndebourne corps - and the pit, where Kenneth Montgomery's wise and vitally theatrical conducting recalled Glyndebourne in the Pritchard years, when Montgomery was an assistant and the GTO music director. Why do we hear so little of this experienced and deeply musical British conductor in this country? Another of those peculiar little operatic mysteries, like the career of Peter Sellars.
Copyright ©Hugh Canning, Opera Magazine