Idomeneo, English National Opera

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The Independent Culture

News that Katie Mitchell was planning to make her production of ‘Idomeneo’ ‘relevant’ did not bode well: she’s a habitual risk-taker, and can produce turkeys with the best of them.

Moreover, Peter Sellars’s Glyndebourne version of this timeless masterpiece, in which the Trojan captives were kitted out in orange Guantanamo jumpsuits, was still fresh in the memory: that modish updating merely blunted the work’s mythical force.

But the plot certainly invites a superimposed rationale. Saved from shipwreck by the gods, King Idomeneo of Crete promises a blood-sacrifice, but discovers the victim must be his son Idamante; the Trojan princess Ilia is torn between love for Idamante and hostility towards Idomeneo (who has killed her father); jealous Electra also loves Idamante; a monster must be slain, and a deus ex machina waits in the wings… Yes, some sense has to be made of all this.

The front-drop at the Coliseum represents a dark, disturbed sea, but rises to reveal a minimalist Nineties lounge, with bright sunlight filtering in through windows whose rectilinearity evokes the excavated palace of Knossos: it does feel oddly like Crete. On a sofa a young girl sits and weeps, while a waiter vainly tries to soothe her with drinks; during Ilia’s long opening aria - sung by Sarah Tynan with exquisitely plangent grace - preoccupied office-workers come and go in the background, suggesting we are at the hub of a corporate enterprise in crisis.

And why not? As Mitchell’s show unfolds, her modern metaphor for antique power proves perfectly apt, all the more so thanks to today’s linkage between the corporate and military worlds. Idamante - tenor Robert Murray, in sweetly expressive voice - declares his love to Ilia in a duet whose passion is in no way diminished by the office formality of its staging. And when Electra enters like an avenging fury - soprano Emma Bell, a consummate drama-queen in the best sense of the word - we know exactly who we’re dealing with: her wine’s off, she doesn’t like her food, nothing’s good enough for this spoilt boardroom princess.

Trailer: Idomeneo

Then comes a magical gear-change, to a shore dominated by a rock-face whose wave- and wind-smoothed strata suggest the passage of millennia. Paul Nilon’s Idomeneo is heroically sung, and the first meeting between father and son - each unknown to the other - is poignant in the extreme. When it’s time for the freed Trojans to sail for home, we move to the departure lounge of a ferry terminal, where the barcarolle ‘Placido e il mar’ gets a most felicitous time-translation.

Mitchell’s great achievement is to make us feel we are seeing this opera for the first time: everything feels spontaneous. Tynan’s love-song to the breeze in Act Three is sung while an office camera projects a film of gently windblown foliage. Bell creates something extraordinary out of her lusciously expectant ‘Idol mio’ aria, teasing and arousing a handsome young waiter the while. Each father-son encounter is rivetingly dramatic, while the great climactic quartet actually draws strength from the contemporary verismo of its presentation. Orchestra and chorus are in top form; Pauls Putnins brings a rolling authority to the voice of sea-god Poseidon, who emerges here as the ultimate boardroom boss.