VO-OA-Idomeneo-photo-by-Charlie-KinrossImmortalised in one of opera’s underperformed jewels of late 18th century composition, King Idomeneo of Crete is one of Mozart’s most honourable characters and compassionate leaders.

Returning from victory in the Trojan Wars but believed dead and faced with the unfortunate dilemma of having to sacrifice his own son after earlier seeking safety from the gods, Idomeneo’s anguish and soul-searching journey, embedded in a climate and setting of bold contrasts, is central to conveying the spirit of the work.

That spirit is keenly developed in a landmark new co-production between Victorian Opera and Opera Australia, directed by Lindy Hume.

Juggling the fantastical with the actual, good with evil, war and peace and love and loyalty, Mozart’s Idomemeo whirrs, whirls and swiftly meanders a course through nature’s beauty and beastliness. And, welcomingly, to a triumphant conclusion.

At every turn, Mozart’s lush music and Abbé Giambattista Varesco’s instructive libretto steal the listener’s attention. In combination with Hume’s creative team – having responded imaginatively with a sumptuous, stage-picture-pleasing feast – the more than two and a half hours of drama in 3 acts could quite easily have been enjoyed without interval. Melbourne audiences have Wagner to thank for that.

VO-OA-Idomeneo-Catherine-Carby-Steve-Davislim-photo-by-Charlie-KinrossNevertheless, not every ingredient worked for Tuesday’s opening night and a little polish and tweak would certainly generate greater rewards.

Under the command of conductor Benjamin Bayl, the magisterial thrum and lucidly expressed ebbs and flows of the overture signalled a tantalising start. Similarly, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra played with accuracy and control, navigating the score’s contrasting shades compellingly.

Along the way, however, despite the nimbly shifted tempi, dramatic and rhythmic verve occasionally sagged, temporarily breaking that all-important lasting spell both the ears and the plot rely on for blissful success.

On stage, singing out the demands of a high-expectational 24 year old Mozart at work wasn’t a walk in the park either. And while timing never appeared to be an issue, absolute fusion of voice and music occasionally waned.

In the title role, tenor Steve Davislim commendably balanced heroic authority, internal turmoil and genuine benevolence as Idomeneo. Charismatically warm and lyrical in nature, Davislim dished out impressive heft when needed, especially in the knockout Act II aria Fuor del mar, marred only by the high-ranged ornamented passages often sounding effortful.

You could see mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby giving the best she could but being sporadically blanketed by the music as she rendered her enamoured and bruised Idamante, Idomeneo’s son, with energetic affability. Learning that she was recovering from sickness, we wish her best for the final two performances.

As Idomeneo agonized over the looming disaster of sacrificing his son, Idamante poured out his love for Ilia. As the captured daughter of King Priam of Troy and pivotal player in bringing change, soprano Kathryn Radcliffe outstandingly portrayed Illia with refined elegance, her supple, radiant instrument projecting marvellously through the cavernous theatre and her Act II Se il padre perdei rousing the audience with its persuasive emotional entreatment.

VO-OA-Idomeneo-Olivia-Cranwell-photo-by-Charlie-KinrossIlia’s desperate rival for Idamante’s affection, Elettra, was formidably conjured by exuberant soprano Olivia Cranwell in a sorceress-like performance culminating in a fiery and smashing D’Oreste, d’Ajace ho in seno i tormenti as her bubble was burst and mind ruffled. But where were Idomeneo’s military guards – of an unusually over-menacing presence – or anyone’s reaction for that matter, in Elettra’s fit of madness?

Michael Dimovski set a dignified tone as Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace. Similarly recovering from sickness, Dimovski’s burnished tone and fluid delivery remained consistent despite being underpowered.

Tenor James Egglestone brought excellent spark to the stage with his arrival as High Priest of Neptune and, as small as the part is, it was disappointing to hear the tremendously muscular-voiced Simon Meadows amplified off stage as the voice of the Oracle of Neptune.

There is enormous scope for the chorus to shine and the more than 30 singers, many well-known to regular attendees, put on an overall impressive show of massed strength, particularly in the Act III finale Scenda amor in a celebration of the new king and queen, Idamante and Illia.

But it was under the creative hands of Michael Yeargan (sets), Anna Cordingley (costumes), Verity Hampson (lighting), David Bergman (video) and Catherine Pettman (cinematography) that this Idomeneo captured the imagination.

VO-OA-Idomeneo-Catherine-Carby-Kathryn-Radcliffe-photo-by-Charlie-KinrossA three-sided grand cubic space, penetrated only by a centrally placed, double-doored neoclassical portal on each side, created the setting and canvas for a variety of stunning projections that evoked landscape settings and character mood as well as washing the surface in rhythm with the score.

A stage revolve was especially effective in its use, aiding movement and interaction which, at various other times, had a little tendency to feel static and distant.

Time, though undefined, spoke of a surrealistic contemporary age in which the chorus of Troyan captives were welcomed as new citizens of Crete in a familiar ceremony when a small seedling was handed to each one. Hume admirably explores many opportunities to emphasise the humanity of the work.

Some questions popped up, including that of the set’s width, considerably narrowed for the Palais stage, possibly for the reason of being required to suit the Sydney Opera House stage. Entries and exits through the exposed side spaces – which I believe will still be evident on the Sydney stage – did, however, mess with the performance space.

We are told Victorian Opera’s collaboration with Opera Australia helped to bring the production forward by 6 months. Before it opens on the Sydney Opera House stage in January, there is 6 months to tune what is a noble and heart-warming reimagining of Mozart’s 18th century reimagined Greek myth. No doubt, keen local opera goers will be speculating upon how this new-found friendship of riches translates into a winning formula.

Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, St Kilda
Season continues to 8 July 2023
Information and Bookings:

Idomeneo will also be presented in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House: 20 February – 15 March 2024

Images: Victorian Opera / Opera Australia presents Idomeneo – all photos by Charlie Kinross

Review: Paul Selar