Idomeneo – destroyed by a monster within

Director Stephen Medcalf emphasises human emotion over ancient myths in Buxton’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

First performed in Vienna in 1792 and composed when Mozart was 25 years old, Idomeneo is widely regarded as Mozart’s first mature work for the stage and the first in a long line of incomparable masterpieces which ends with The Magic Flute and Mozart’s untimely death.

The story is based on legend: according to Homer King Idomeneus of Crete is returning from the Trojan war when his ship is caught up in a ferocious storm. He vows to Neptune, god of the sea, that if he is saved he will sacrifice the first human being he meets on dry land, which turns out to be his own son. The libretto turns this story into a powerful enlightenment drama which celebrates the triumph of human reason and compassion over the absolutist will of the gods. It also explores ideas of leadership and responsibility and examines how human beings behave when they experience the stress of an endless and bloody conflict. In this respect the themes of the opera are familiar to today’s audience, dealing as they do with the inevitable consequences of a long war: suffering on a huge scale and the mass displacement of peoples. In many respects Idomeneo is like any returning veteran, trying desperately to adjust to peace time while war still rages within him.

Mozart’s music is extraordinary; no other word will suffice. He takes the traditional form of the old opera seria as perfected by Handel but gives it a good shake up and in so doing advances it towards the through composed music drama of the nineteenth century. First of all he introduces the chorus as a major protagonist (under the influence of Gluck) and composes for them some of the most dramatically potent and sublimely beautiful choruses ever written. He does away with the traditional stop-start character of the opera seria by composing bridging passages and incidental music which give the opera great fluidity and a sense of forward momentum. He brilliantly exploits the form of the accompagnato (orchestral recitative) to give an active quality to reflection and a reflective quality to action; thus the plot moves forward on a crest of an emotional wave. Most important of all his music creates truthful characters of psychological complexity, which of course are to become the hallmark of his late, great Da Ponte trilogy.

There is, of course, plenty of traditional operatic spectacle implied in the stage directions of but what fascinates myself and the designer, Isabella Bywater about Idomeneo, and arguably what most interested Mozart is not so much the boiling seas, shipwrecks, gods and sea monsters but what they represent. In a moment of musico-dramatic genius the jealous rage of Electra’s first aria Tutto nel cor vi sento mutates into the tempest that destroys the Cretan fleet. Later, in probably the most famous aria of all: Fuor del Mar, Idomeneo likens his suffering to a raging sea within his breast. Then when the sea monster appears at the climax of Act 2 it seems to be the personification of Idomeneo’s guilt, tormenting him as his subjects gaze on amazed.

At this critical moment Idomeneo cries out: ‘Eccoti in me, barbaro Nume! Il reo!’: which can be translated as ‘Here he is, cruel god! The guilty one’. At a literal level he means guilty in the sense that he has failed to carry out the sacrifice of the innocent victim that he promised in exchange for his own life and is therefore the one responsible for provoking Neptune’s anger. But at another level it refers to the crippling sense of guilt he suffers as a result of making the vow in the first place. The first part of the sentence has the literal meaning ‘Here you are in me, cruel god’ and which tantalisingly hints at the idea that Idomeneo feels himself possessed by the spirit of the vengeful Neptune. It may be that what terrifies the populace is not the monster in the waves but the prospect of their all-powerful leader disintegrating before their eyes, destroyed by a monster within.

Stephen Medcalf, Director

Shakespeare at Buxton Festival

This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. His plays have been transported into the opera (and ballet) world, and his poetry and sonnets are still well-known and read today. This year, Buxton Festival will be marking the anniversary with a number of writers/speakers, musicians and an opera that have all been inspired by Shakespeare!

How was Shakespeare pronounced? is the title of a talk by David Crystal who will explore the Shakespearean language on 10 July, while Andrew Dickson (his book cover of Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe at the top) on 17 July takes us on a journey to understand how Shakespeare’s works have found a home across the world, and the most unexpected of places. It doesn’t just end there – on 19 July, Assistant Director of Leonore, Ella Marchment, directs a performance based on the life of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway – performed by Elin Pritchard (Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor 2015) – weaving together arias and songs that use Shakespearean text. A recital by tenor Nicky Spence, accompanied by Simon Lepper, As You Like It – Shakespeare Songs, offers a range of songs from Britten and Poulenc, to Purcell, Schubert and Tippett. Manchester Chamber Choir on 17 July features a selection of Shakespearean songs by Paul Mealor and Vaughan Williams (amongst others), and Buxton Festival Fringe’s Shakespeare Juke Box will be outside Buxton Opera House. One of the Festival operas this year is Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (see it on 9, 13, 16, 20 & 23 July). Artistic Director Stephen Barlow recently wrote a piece in the Festival’s newsletter about Bellini and his opera, which is in fact based ‘on other Italian sources’. In case you missed it, here it is below.

Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania at a time when Catania was a thriving city of grandeur, status and artistic fertility. His education was hardly all embracing, albeit there was a period when he was immersed in the music of Haydn and Mozart. Principally his life revolved around the music of contemporary Italians over whom Rossini towered. Bellini is said to have remarked after he saw his first opera by Rossini, Semiramide, that there was no purpose in anyone else trying to do anything. However, his adoration of Donizetti in particular led to his career blossoming and he was soon in demand as a composer who knew how to produce in the style of bel canto to please his audiences. But ‘bel canto’ goes nowhere near describing Bellini’s insight and rare talent to ally narrative and psychology within  ostensibly melodic parameters. Verdi was in awe of Bellini’s melodic talent certainly, apparently saying that ‘there are extremely long melodies as no-one else had ever made before’. He was also described romantically as the Swan of Catania as his reputation grew. It was in Germany where this deeper  dramatic talent was truly recognised, and as Tim Ashley writes ‘Wagner, who rarely liked anyone but himself, was spellbound by Bellini’s almost uncanny ability to match music with text and psychology. Liszt and Chopin professed themselves fans’. Wagner intervened in typically magisterial terms in an esoteric but heated debate in Germany with a full justification of Bellini’s seemingly innocent works attesting that behind the purity of simple melody lay deep dramatic artistry.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi was composed in about 5 or 6 weeks, very hurriedly to commission although you would never know it, based not on Shakespeare but on other old Italian sources. Capuleti is Bellini’s first opera in his prime written before he was 30 years old, and within the five years following he composed SonnambulaI Puritani and Norma which remain as three of the most complete and inspired operas of the time. It was the first Bellini opera I conducted and it was in Catania’s aptly named Teatro Bellini with the well-known soprano Mariella Devia as Giulietta. A beautiful statue of the great man stands outside the theatre, such is the value placed on his legacy. Alas, the Bellini cocktail has nothing to do with him at all, but Pasta alla Norma, a Catanese dish based on aubergines certainly does, named by a Director who claimed that the aubergine dish was as sublime as Bellini’s opera, Norma. Heinrich Heine held Bellini in very high regard, and although he described him as ‘a sigh in dancing pumps’ is quoted as telling Bellini he was ‘a genius and all geniuses die a premature death, like Raphael and Mozart’, which apparently he took to heart. He did in fact die at the early age of 34, only two years short of Mozart’s life span, and we can only speculate in sadness and admiration about what great works might have followed if he had lived longer.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director

So, as you can see the Festival has much to offer to honour ‘England’s national poet’ and ‘Bard of Avon’. Public booking opened on 29 March so be sure to get in early to avoid disappointment!

Artistic Director Stephen Barlow on Beethoven and Leonore

This year’s opera programme features Beethoven’s Leonore – an early version of what would become known as Fidelio. Artistic Director and conductor of Leonore, Stephen Barlow, talks about why he finds the earlier version much more powerful.

Leonore was written when Beethoven was 34 and premiered in 1805. The very fact that Beethoven subjected his only foray into Opera to extensive revision after it had first performed is extraordinary. Beethoven was singular in strength of mind and nature and his sketch books tell us much about his method of composition, pitting idea against idea as he searched for the perfect solutions and form he required.

But he caved in to criticism from friends and the judgement of those who were bold enough to venture their opinions before he finally presented the work as Fidelio many years later. He later referred to the whole project as a shipwreck, his confidence severely shaken where dramatic stage work is concerned. Much later Fidelio became a reverentially important work for many, especially after the 2nd world war, when Furtwängler wrote ‘The conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical… Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage… Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary.

That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’.

All this is perceptive and deeply felt, but my own view is that Beethoven’s first version, Leonore, is much more of a dramatic entity, ablaze with inspiration, conviction, sensitivity and emotional sympathy, as much as it is a paean to true love and a morality tale with deeper political strains. It is full too of influences. Leonore would have been impossible without Mozart’s huge variety of operatic focus, including women, hope, deeper moral purpose and a strong link to theatrical drama. Take for example Leonore’s well known ‘Abscheulicher’ aria; like Fiordiligi’s ‘Per Pieta’, her discovery that hope and strength of purpose is still available to her, Leonore’s aria is likewise in E major, and uses obbligato horns, only Beethoven increases the number of horns from 2 in Mozart’s work to 3 in his own.

My belief is that if Beethoven had not given way to his critics and revised it all, Leonore would still be as widely performed now as Fidelio is. Suffice perhaps to say that when I conducted Leonore many years ago in Graham Vick’s production at Battignano, the music Beethoven subsequently cut out remains with me to this day, focusing as it does on the more human aspects of the domestic family, Rocco and Marzelline, Leonore and Jacquino, and the impending catastrophe brutal and violent Pizarro visits upon them. Beethoven was more than capable of writing music that touches us on all levels, particularly our most human sensitivities.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director