Idomeneo at the Buxton Festival

Some performances of Idomeneo induce me to the heretical conclusion that it is Mozart’s greatest opera – the Buxton Festival’s current offering was one of them. Musically, the piece is extraordinarily rich, particularly the orchestral writing which, with the high profile use of wind instruments, its harmonies and inventive phrasing, does so much to augment the drama by creating aural imagery of what is happening on stage. In moving opera seria forward to something more continuous, enabling greater interaction between the characters, it provides a near perfect format for a work which in many respects resembles Greek tragedy.

This Buxton experience of Idomeneo was all the greater because Stephen Medcalf’s production was perhaps the most impressive of the opera I have seen. There were two key dimensions to this. The first was the brilliant idea of translating the external forces, the deities and spirits of nature which threaten humanity if not sufficiently placated, into internal psychological powers which can drive individuals to irrational behaviour. So when in Act 3 the sea monster arrives to wreak havoc (always a problem in a conventional staging) here it is represented by Idomeneo being seized by a nervous disorder. The second was the aesthetically pleasing movement of the performers on stage, sometimes stylised, sometimes naturalistic, and the attention to detail which went with it, engaging one’s emotions with the characters and their predicament. Add to this Isabella Bywater’s simple but effective set, a house half-open to the elements and with a network of doors enabling some subtle entrances and exits, and Mark Jonathan’s striking lighting designs, including the silhouetting of characters external to the playing area; and visually the production cohered into a beautiful and moving evocation of the drama.

Musically, the performance was no less satisfying. Idomeneo must be a favourite of Nicholas Kok for, in his conducting, he relished the variety of colours and imagery in Mozart’s score. The principal female singers (Rebecca Bottone, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard) were all very good vocally and dramatically had internalised the characters (Ilia, Idamante, and Elettra respectively), but I have to single out Paul Nilon in the title role for special mention. His portrayal of an individual ravaged by the forces which lead him nearly to destroy what he loves most – his son – was masterly and was matched by the visceral energy he brought to his singing which never faltered even when challenged by some of the higher lying passages. In my book, Travels with my Opera Glasses, published in 2013, I devoted a page or two to my admiration of this fine singer-actor, who has impressed me on so many occasions. Five years have passed and he remains one of my operatic heroes. His performance was the pinnacle of a wonderful evening of music theatre.