Tom Sutcliffe reviews Mozart’s Idomeneo and calls for radical change in the world of British opera

An hour’s drive south of Toulouse in the Ariège northern mountains of the Pyrenees, the Niaux cave contains a series of animal paintings from about 15,000 years ago of extraordinary precision and perception. But the most awesome aspect of the high-ceilinged hall where one sees these bisons, horses, ibex, and a stag is the fertile imposing acoustic – cathedral-like in its lingering resonance.

Before the word was made flesh, the ear had to be got ready. Without words and music could the divine be apprehended? People like us tried to make sense of their world as the ice age waned. Seeing how they respected the power they relied on is deeply moving. What did these drawings and the claviform marks around them mean, asked two women visitors? The paintings on the convex protruding rock surfaces are powerfully descriptive. But getting there is still not easy. Was it their underworld or did one person serve, inspired to speak for the power they had to respect – as spirit religions anticipating opera seem to have required? Did they drum or shout? Was the painting carried on in silence in the presence of many or none, bringing within the mountain to its spirit representation of the good creatures needed for human life to continue without horticulture? Being the voice of God is never easy. But how necessary is thanksgiving.


At Covent Garden in Mozart’s Idomeneo as staged by Martin Kus”ej the voice of God (Neptune in this case) was demystified utterly. The trombones still announce the seriousness in their wonderful simple way. But this was no longer the offstage voice Mozart and his librettist Varesco wanted. Instead here was a cheery irreverent singer walking wreathed in smiles among the centre stage crowd. Of course. Who takes the idea of God seriously?

In the Telegraph John Allison who edits Opera magazine said Idomeneo is about a fractured father–son relationship’ which it isn’t. Idomeneo gave a hostage to fortune on his way home to Crete, his kingdom, from the Trojan War: he thought Neptune would not sink his ship if he promised to sacrifice the first person he met on landing, and because that person proved to be his very own son and heir he could not bring himself to do the deed. Thereafter God seems to be taking this betrayal of trust very badly: Crete is hit with plague, storm, invasion, a sea monster eating innocents on the shore. Eventually Idomeneo tells the High Priest the truth, and soon his son Idamante, having just defended Crete heroically, is ready for his father’s sacrificial axe. Which is when God speaks: Idomeneo’s rein is over, his son is to be king with the captive Trojan princess Ilya as his queen. All rejoice.

Police state

The Royal Opera staging is the third modern German staging I have seen within a year (one in Frankfurt by Jan Philipp Gloger, one in Basel by David Bösch). All presented Crete as a war zone – though the story is postwar. Kus”ej’s Crete is a police state where prisoners are brutalized and killed, while Idamante is powerless and irresponsible. Arbace, Idomeneo’s right-hand-man, is presented as a weird hippy with an accordion. The words rarely made any sense in the context provided by Kus”ej’s staging. Casting Franco Fagioli an Argentinian countertenor in the soprano castrato role of Idamante (which Mozart rewrote for a tenor to bring greater believability to the story) was a lunatic experiment: vile singing with almost no words audible. Marc Minkowski’s conducting was atrocious too – completely ignoring the singers and ploughing on regardless with pathetic emphasis on phoney stylistic authenticity, fiddly, irrelevant.

Opera in London is a disaster area. The Royal Opera has hired at great expense as chief executive Alex Beard, who is an accountant with no practical experience of the live performing arts. In charge of the actual opera at Covent Garden, alongside Antonio Pappano who cares mainly about the orchestra, is Kasper Holten, whose mother was chairman of the Bank of Denmark which might have had little to do with his getting to run the Danish Opera in his mid-20s. Holten is also the second person appointed to run a British opera company from a place with no great operatic tradition.

Our only hope

The Royal Opera is substantially subsidized though it also raises much private money to do its work. Its seats are now so expensive, its audience is as exclusive as Glyndebourne’s – which makes subsidizing it a dubious way to popularize opera. But Covent Garden is a British institution and possibly the only secure future opera we have. Its work now is said to be all about excellence. So why is it at Holten’s bidding presenting dubious German directors like Kus”ej and Katharina Thoma, and so few Brits?

Meanwhile, down the road at the Coliseum, English National Opera has just had its subsidy reduced by nearly £5 million (a 29% cut, while Covent Garden has been cut by 3.6%). John Berry has been running the show for nearly a round 10 years; he took over from his sacked predecessor Sean Doran without the job being advertised. ENO is, he plans, going in for musicals, of which London has no shortage. It will lose its purpose and, I predict, close within two years. The only hope for the uncommercial live performing arts in Britain is to abolish Arts Council England. Regionalize and have local politicians in charge as in Germany and Switzerland. We need sensible expert Brits to run our operas. In London get the Mayor’s office to sort the money out. It is a totally rotten story. It demands radical reform. ND