If Mozart makes us smarter, can he help us with the Middle East? That’s the question posed by what will surely be the most talked about operatic event of this summer’s European festival circuit -- the Glyndebourne Festival Opera production of his 1781 “Idomeneo,” directed by Peter Sellars, designed by Anish Kapoor, choreographed by Mark Morris and conducted by Simon Rattle.
Tickets for the production, which runs until July 26, sold out long before it opened June 10, helped no doubt by the giddy British press fueling rumors of scandal. Sellars said last year that he would stage Mozart’s early opera seria about the aftermath of the Trojan War as if it were set in modern-day Iraq, but he kept quiet about his concept once rehearsals began. Kapoor’s set was secret, but word got out that it was shockingly gynecological.
In May, the Independent reported as an open secret that some American and multinational corporations, expecting that the production would be anti-American, were threatening to withdraw their support from this most elite of opera festivals. The production, unlike most at Glyndebourne, lists no sponsorship.
There are a few sensationalist images in this “Idomeneo.” The curtain rises on women clad as Muslims, weeping over three body bags laid out on the lip of the stage. Western-looking soldiers appear in battle fatigues. Everything takes place amid the mysterious, luminous eroticism of Kapoor’s huge set, perhaps the female counterpart of the Indian-born British artist’s enormous phallic trumpets, which wow Tate Modern visitors, and an apparent tribute to an erotic sculpture by Marcel Duchamp.
That was enough to rile the press, which condemned the production for being everything from overly politicized to overly abstract. Many were aghast at the anatomical specificity of Kapoor’s set, as if it were an insult to the festival’s genteel environs.
But what struck me at Sunday’s performance was the exceptional blend of light, color, movement, physical sculpture, intense acting and wonderful music-making. The elements of this production cannot be isolated. Never has “Idomeneo” been so intensely scrutinized as it has been under Sellars, Kapoor, Morris and Rattle, and what they uncover is disquieting, yet also spiritually uplifting.
Glyndebourne lays a special claim to this opera. Based on ancient Greek myth, “Idomeneo,” Mozart’s first mature opera, was quickly eclipsed by his modern comedies, and it had become a genuine rarity when Glyndebourne revived it in 1951.
Although the opera has since been recognized for containing a number of musically fine arias, ensembles and choruses -- fine enough to attract Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo to the title role -- it is very long and can seem dramatically stilted. Almost everyone cuts the 20 minutes of dances at the end.
This production heeds every note in the score, however, and has something meaningful to say about every character.
The love between Idamante, the son of Crete’s victorious King Idomeneo, and the captive Ilia, the daughter of the slain Trojan leader, King Priam, takes on a vast significance. It is they who must overcome the sins of their fathers and find a means of achieving lasting peace between enemies. One of the first notable things Idamante does in this production is to exchange his battle dress for a phosphorescent blue outfit that glows like Ilia’s blue garb.
The story is complicated by Idomeneo, who has made a pact with the god Neptune. In exchange for safe passage through a storm, he agrees to sacrifice the first person he meets on shore. The god arranges for that to be his son, Idamante. The crisis is resolved only when Idomeneo admits he was wrong.
In dressing Idomeneo and his advisor, Arbace, in the suits and ties of modern leaders, Sellars shows us an alternate universe in which politicians actually appease vengeful gods through learning to be humble, trusting, truthful and loving.
A Freudian might have a field day interpreting the way Sellars handles this search for salvation in a womb-like setting. With James F. Ingalls’ fluid and radiant lighting, that setting becomes a vast color field, ever changing and dreamlike. In key arias, two dancers (Sonja Kostich and Hans-Georg Lenhart) act as doubles of the singers, contributing to the sense of this performance always being in motion. The most robustly sung performance Sunday was by Magdalena Kozena, a boyish Idamante developing self- possession. Christiane Oelze was the radiant Ilia. Although Philip Langridge’s voice shows signs of wear, that helped enhance his portrayal of Idomeneo’s wrenching coming to terms with his power.
In the last act, Kapoor’s set morphs into a large spherical sun and a tear-shaped slit on the floor. It is through the latter that Elettra, who also loves Idamante, is dragged. Anne Schwanewilms, a wild singer, is the vengeful Greek princess.
It is hard to imagine any of this working so well without Rattle’s robust, alert and phenomenally expressive conducting of the colorful and silken-smooth period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the lively young Glyndebourne Chorus. The chorus is the soul of the opera and of this production. A sea of bodies flowing on and off the stage and still singing superbly, it serves here as guide on a journey from utter sadness to the glow of spiritual revelation.
For the concluding set of dances, Morris etches Mozart’s musical lines in gracefully offbeat movements for the pair of dancers, who lightly skip off at the end.
For once, this buoyant denouement to “Idomeneo” seems not only satisfying but also necessary. That we can ultimately feel simple pleasure is the strongest political statement of the evening.