Look and feel
George Frideric Handel: Theodora
Henry Waddington (Valens), Stephen Wallace (Didymus), Paul Nilon (Septimius), Vanessa Woodfine (Theodora), Christine Rice (Irene), Peter Haydn Ferris (Messenger)
Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor), Peter Sellars with Clare Whistler (director)
11/11/03 and 14 November 2003
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo
Marie Arnet (Ilia), Julianne de Villiers (Idamante), Cara O'Sullivan (Elettra), Hilton Marlton (Arbace), Peter Bronder (Idomeneo), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (High priest), Andrew Foster Williams (Voice of Neptune), Sonja Kostich, Hans-Georg Lenhart (dancers)
Kenneth Montgomery (conductor), Peter Sellars with Stephen Barlow (director)
Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus
Peter Sellars' two current productions for Glyndebourne, both seen in the Festival and now touring with different principals and orchestra, had widely different receptions. Theodora, introduced in 1996, was almost universally praised for its emotional impact and musical insight, in spite of its explicit identification of aspects of the political culture of the contemporary United States with the wicked Romans. Idomeneo, new this year, has been widely decried for its contemporary resonances. Perhaps the difference is more in the expectations of critics and audiences than in the productions: few in 1996 can have had any idea of what a staged version of an obscure Handel oratorio should be like, or, more importantly, any firm convictions about what Theodora should be about. Sellars' interpretation is unambiguously or arguably wrong in several respects, but pretty much nobody thought they knew it. In contrast, most potential audiences know what they expect from Mozart, even from the almost as obscure and strangely engineered Idomeneo, and can protest when they don't get it.
Both works are explicitly political, yet the gentle contextualization of Idomeneo (an "American" Elettra representing the otherwise invisible major power behind the Trojan war, a "Moslem" Ilia representing the victims of the war, and very little else) has caused an outcry while the detailed moral critique in the Theodora production is rightly widely accepted as part of the work's moral content. As it turns out, Sellars' Theodora is far more resonant of events in the United States now than it was seven years ago, when the facile thug president hounding Christians might have evoked memories of Reagan or Nixon hunting Reds; now the US administration is chasing an enemy within that many define mainly by its religious belief. Idomeneo, in contrast, is about the broader generalities of war and politics: the horror and apparent necessity of killing, the need to let younger people take power, the possibility of mercy and peace, of progress, even. A few hints help those unfamiliar with the background that gives meaning to the action, but Sellars essentially presents a narrative of stylised pure humanity.
Theodora, as in its previous tour in 1996, has the benefit of the Glyndebourne chorus, many of whom performed in the festival, and who now separately and collectively make an incredible dramatic contribution, both as serene Christians and as hooligan Romans eventually overwhelmed by the example of Theodora and Didymus. Also as in 1996, the touring principals are not comparable to those in the festival, but generally stand up on their own terms. Vanessa Woodfine, stepping in for an indisposed Anne-Lise Sollied, sang gloriously as Theodora, lacking perhaps only a touch of vulnerability. Stephen Wallace as Didymus was strikingly unheroic of voice, but he delivered the music with insight if not force and acted with commitment. Henry Waddington was suitably nasty and stupid as Valens.
As often, the comparatively marginal characters of Septimius and Irene, the hero and heroine's respective buddies took centre stage. Paul Nilon, who sang Septimius in the 1997 festival, sang beautifully, expressing the insoluble torment of a man who hates what he has to do and cannot break out of the order that makes him do it. Christine Rice as the Christian earth mother Irene was beautiful in every way and, like Nilon, musically impeccable.
Emmanuelle Haïm, although a protégée of William Christie, directed the orchestra with an emphasis on reflection rather then bravura. The overture seemed to risk grinding to a halt at times, and there were other points where some forward momentum would have been welcome. But there was also much of great beauty.
Idomeneo was, surprisingly, an altogether blander affair, both musically and dramatically. Sellars and his team seem to have tried to avoid explaining what Anish Kapoor's two highly abstract sets are about. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the undeniably powerful visual impact of the production has drained resources (perhaps the director's and performers' work on the humanity of the performances, perhaps the audience's ability to respond to them) and over-aestheticised the whole experience. The first two acts take place in a transformation of Kapoor's Marsysas, a suffocating tunnel of raw flesh that evokes, among other things, the physical agony of war and a vagina and anus. Idomeneo's promise of a sacrifice to Neptune in return for his survival is a thoughtless act of violence, justified as self defence, that (here literally) colours the action. Ilia and later Idamante, the lovers who forgive past enmity are in contrast dressed in cool midnight blue, while Elettra, initially neurotic and finally crazy, wears in turn acid pink, red, and orange that shriek at everything. The third act, in which the crisis is resolved by Idamante's willing acceptance of death, takes place on a more open set, with the anus and vagina transformed respectively into a circle on the back drop that changes colour to represent (probably) the world, the sun and the moon and a white pointed ellipse on the stage that represents the abyss. In the most powerful coup of the production, the ghost of her brother Orestes drags down the raging Elettra at the end. It is all far more than decorative, but with James Ingalls' and Robin Carter's subtle but often monolithic lighting it is also almost always remote. Similarly, the two dancers who accompanied the key points of the action were somehow too understated to add much to often powerful performances.
Nevertheless, Sellars' production makes incomparably more sense of a difficult and recondite work than Ponnelle's ever did. A generally very young cast delivered strong emotions and some fine singing. Marie Arnet was a lovely Ilia, conveying more of the horror of war in her opening lament that all the exposed blood vessels in the world. Cara O'Sullivan was a slightly bovine Elettra except in her two mad arias, where she was superb. Julianne de Villiers as Idamante was perhaps a little too otherworldly and sweet, both of voice and person. Hilton Marlton made such a good job of Arbace's second aria that it would have been worth letting him sing the first one as well.
In the title role, Peter Bronder was a little low on pure physical brutality, but in every other way first rate, making his music expressive rather than pyrotechnic throughout.
Kenneth Montgomery directed the orchestra in a brisk style that was, like the production, dramatic without being quite overwhelming.