If you can read Idomeneo as a drama about Mozart and his father, you can read it as a drama about Graham Vick and the Arts Council. Of the organisations to be threatened with having their funding axed last year, Birmingham Opera Company seemed the least deserving, having consistently married artistic excellence with community involvement and audience development. They appealed and were heard, much as Idamante is finally spared by the capricious gods, but the memory is evidently still raw.
Violent and challenging, Vick's latest site-specific production makes a strong argument for Mozart's most austere opera as a propulsive piece of theatre. Walk into the disused Sherborne rubber factory and a fluorescent sticker is placed on your shoulder, identifying you as a Trojan prisoner of war. Glance up and you see a giant mural of Idomeneo, leading his people to peace and prosperity. Mao-suited Cretans shuffle about, weeping. A leaflet is pressed into your hand: "The King is Dead! Mourn the King!" Herded into a landscape of bare earth and rusting shipping containers, you notice the tang of blood.
With the orchestra on a stage in a valley between designer Stuart Nunn's bleak mounds of soil and tiled sacrificial altars, the instrumental interludes achieve new vitality under William Lacey's incisive beat. The Act III quartet is sung from the factory floor, with the singers moving through the audience, tracked by Giuseppe di Iorio's subtle lighting. Meanwhile, the huge chorus of local amateurs offer a powerful study of mass hysteria. Together with Paul Nilon's ambiguous King, Mark Wilde's guileless Idamante, Donna Bateman's crazed Electra, Keel Watson's sombre Oracle and, most particularly, Anna Dennis's bruised, beautiful Ilia, they demonstrate how crucial this unique company is to Birmingham – and Britain's – cultural life.
Go to a Prom when your child has a temperature and you're the most evil parent in the world. Stay home and tune the radio to the music of 99-year-old composer Elliott Carter, and you're the most evil parent in the universe. Yes, headphones are a marvellous thing. But I, too, found the UK premiere of Carter's Soundings (Prom 44) rather like swallowing sherbet with a spoonful of salt. Written for Daniel Barenboim, and designed to be played and conducted by him, this was the first work in two performances by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Criticising Carter has become as shameful as kicking a Chelsea Pensioner, but in separating the roles of conductor and pianist, Volkov revealed a bewildering lack of cogency in this garrulous novelty. Listening from home, it seemed as if pianist Nicholas Hodges had left the stage after two minutes and run off to find the rest of the score. That he came back empty-handed was a relief.
Alban Gerhardt's lyrical performance of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto was complemented by strong ensemble work. Less convincing was Volkov's brisk, bland Pastoral Symphony, and the following night's concert (Prom 45) showed where he had spent his rehearsal time. Here, Cédric Tiberghien's subdued reading of Jonathan Harvey's Tombeau de Messiaen (1994) for piano and tape established the evening's strange alchemy of electronic and natural sound. Joined by flautist Emily Beynon, oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk, cellist Danjulo Ishizaka and the orchestra, Tiberghien's sensual, elegiac performance of Messiaen's Concert à quatre was ravishing. So too was Mortuos plango, vivos voco (1980), Harvey's "poem about a bell and a boy" for eight-channel tape.
The electronically filtered susurrations and jibes in the premiere of Harvey's Speakings (2008) were sometimes beguiling, sometimes unnerving. Composed in three sections for a broken consort of 11 instrumental soloists within an amplified orchestra, this ambitious work reverses the technique of speech notation used by Steve Reich in The Cave and Different Trains by electronically applying speech patterns to instrumental lines. Superb performances of Varèse's Poème électronique and Déserts concluded a demanding programme. If the impact was as impressive in the hall as over the air, it should rank among this year's highlights.