Idomeneo in Mud and Blood

When the elector of Munich requested a festival opera in 1781 Mozart put everything he had learnt into his first mature opera seria, Idomeneo, which tells the archetypal story of a king who, surviving a sea storm, has to sacrifice the first person he meets on land, which turns out to be his own son! The convolutions of the plot, with the appearance of the impetuous love rival Electra, leads Mozart to write some of his sublimest music to-date with choruses that look as far ahead as Die Zauberflote, a voice from the deep that harkens to Don Giovanni’s Commendatore, a quartet of conflicting emotions (a piece Mozart rightly considered the best item in the opera) which is a blueprint for so much of the interaction of ‘Figaro’ and a march which equally points ahead . For me the most melting items are Ilia’s arias which evoke a poignant humanity which reaches its peak in Mozart’s miraculous music.

The cast at Pistoia’s charming and accoustically superb nineteenth century Teatro Manzoni was well up to this magnificent work and provided an excellent and unusual start to this year’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival’s seventieth anniversary

Why Pistoia and not Florence? Because Pistoia is this year’s Italian city of culture, a town worth every effort to visit its outstanding sights, especially its mediaeval pulpits so full of wonderful carvings and its fine cathedral square.

I wish I could have as good a word to say for the setting which reminded me a bit of the Thames estuary at low tide and remained much the same for all three acts. Idomeneo concludes with a treble tour de force: an electrifying revenge aria by the spurned Electra, a triumphal chorus and Mozart’s longest instrumental movement: the fabulous ballet which in the eighteenth century would have involved elaborate costumes and effects. Here, instead, there was a sober processional gathering of candles round the departed Idomeneo who has relinquished his Cretan kingdom to his son Idamante who now celebrates his wedding with Ilia.

The audience gave loud applause for the singers, especially Idamante and Ilia, and equally vociferous boos to the stage designer who, nonplussed,  joined the cast in the final curtain call.

Let us bless small mercies; Idomeneo is too rarely staged and the cherry on its cake has to be the singing and orchestra which were quite superb at the Teatro Manzoni.

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