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mozart’s idomeneo | opera australia | sydney opera house

In Opera Australia’s season for 2024 they digress away from the usual Romantic period regulars to visit ancient times. In September will be a rendition of the poem of Gilgamesh performed at Carriageworks and presently, the company is delving into a story of Ancient Greek mythology.

Mozart’s Idomeneo is wrapped around the infamous Trojan war between Greece and Troy. The plot was originally taken from a play by contemporary (to Mozart) French poet Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. It features four royal characters coming together on the Isle of Crete. The daughter of Trojan King Priam, Princess Ilia, who has been captured after her royal relatives perished in the war, Princess Elettra, daughter of the Greek King Agamemnon plus her allies, father and son, Cretan King Idomeneo and Prince Idamante. The three young-on’s create a love triangle whilst the King is distracted with more pressing business.

King Idomeneo is caught in a shipwreck where he pleads for his life, and that of his men, with Neptune, God of the Sea. A gruesome vow is made that in return for their lives saved he must sacrifice the first living creature he sees when he is washed ashore. Likely, he was hoping it would be a sheep or cow but, to his horror, he discovers it is his own son walking on the beach. The entire opera has Idomeneo in torment over this vow, knowing that Neptune is not a god known for compromise. The role offers wonderful opportunity to plumb deep into emotions from madness, hopelessness, self sacrifice and pure fatherly love.

Canadian tenor Michael Schade grabbed this role with both hands and wields it about him with ease. Schade has performed Idomeneo in opera houses around Europe over the past 15 years or so including the Vienna State Opera. With a powerful voice and refined dramatic skill, he carries the audience alongside in his dilemma without ever a dull nor repetitive moment. His magnetic stage presence grabbed attention from the first moment he appears and is not to be outdone by any other artist.

Caitlin Hulcup as Prince Idamante in Idomeneo by Mozart for Opera Australia at Sydney Opera House February 2024
Caitlin Hulcup as Prince Idamante in Idomeneo by Mozart for Opera Australia at Sydney Opera House February 2024

Mozart may possibly have originally written the role of Prince Idamante for castrati though, in more recent centuries, has been played by tenors or mezzo sopranos. Opera Australia’s production features the well travelled mezzo soprano Caitlin Hulcup who has performed across Europe, USA, Russia and Asia. The dramatic choice in this production seems to have been to make Idamante a love struck and aptly confused teenager who grows and matures as the story progresses. This is quite a change from previous players of the role who project a stronger, older heir to the throne (albeit still confused by their father’s tormented and rejecting behaviour). Hulcup musically offered a wonderful rendition and was rewarded with great cheers at the curtain call. The audience loved her.

A vocally and dramatically challenging role is that of the rejected Elettra played by the effervescent Emma Pearson. It’s a wonderful meaty role where she gets to rouse the Furies, spitting jealousy and revenge, swirling spells and curses which grows to a climax in the final Act. Her opening aria felt a little subdued though she might fill this out further as the season progresses. Elettra’s attempts to seduce Idamante were suitably cringe-worthy in what felt like a long, drawn out awkward moment. Brilliantly played.

Celeste Lazarenko and Emma Pearson in Idomeneo by Mozart for Opera Australia Sydney February 2024.
Celeste Lazarenko (Princess Ilia in background) and Emma Pearson (Princess Elettra in foreground) in Idomeneo by Mozart for Opera Australia

Sydney soprano Celeste Lazarenko completed the quartet of principal artists as Princess Ilia. Her voice was crystal clear and accurate though articulation may need a little more attention. Her role has an odd beginning where she tells us of both her hatred for her country’s enemies and the paradox of falling in love with Idamante (on the enemy’s side) who saves her life. This is expressed in the recitative and following aria “Padre Germani Addio”. It’s not easy to play the role as the sweet and innocent princess who simultaneously loves and hates. Lazarenko did well with this challenge and her character developed more as the story progressed.

Well known Australian opera and festival Director Lindy Hume headed the production which (possibly) premiered with Victorian Opera last year. She returns to Opera Australia after a long period of absence. Her direction switched between simple scenes focussing on the intimate character relationships and highly ritualistic scenes filled with symbolism.

Idomeneo by Mozart Opera Australia February 2024
Special effects video backdrop of a shipwreck, Act I of Mozart’s Idomeneo by Opera Australia

The collaboration of Designers for Sets – Michael Reardon, Lighting – Verity Hampson, Video – David Bergman and Cinematographer – Catherine Pettman provided a wonderful, ever changing range of moving backdrops projected on three walls. A far cry from the overwhelming special effects of earlier company productions, these backdrops were not designed to compete with the artists on stage, but rather to enhance the action. The only difficulty in rehearsing without the video backdrops is that the chorus do no have opportunity to see the threats looming over their heads. The panic portrayed at the emergence of a “blob” style sea monster and the shipwreck in Act I were both superb. More could be added to the action for the chorus once Elettra starts her witchcraft in Act III. Here we see very effective blood splashing areas of the stage using video and lighting yet, the chorus are unperturbed. Perhaps this action will also fill out as the season continues. On the wish list for the background videos, the close of the final act could have better expressed the optimism of a happy ending.

The costumes by Anna Cordingley were contemporary and mostly ambivalent in exact era. Some were touching on fantasy whilst others, like the prisoners of war in the opening scene, were puzzling in their casual outfits you might spot worn by regular locals down at the supermarket. Principal artist costumes were good overall. Most notable were a magnificent royal mantle complete with black rooster feathers for King Idomeneo and a wonderful pairing of long black jacket over a flowing purple gown topped with Henna red hair for Elettra. These costumes created the most strong and memorable branding for the two characters.

Summing up, the production is definitely worth attending and supporting. Mozart’s music is as sublime as you would expect with period style recitative between the arias accompanied by nearby harpsichord. The voices are excellent and the video backdrops highly effective in creating a suitable foreboding atmosphere.

Season runs till 15 March 2024.

Conductor: Johannes Fritzsch
Principal artists:
Idomeneo – Michael Schade
Idamante – Caitlin Hulcup
Ilia – Celeste Lazarenko
Elettra – Emma Pearson

Director: Lindy Hume
Set design: Michael Yearn
Set design consultant: Richard Roberts
Costume design: Anna Cordingley
Lighting design: Verity Hampson
Video design: David Bergman
Cinematographer: Catherine Pettman
Assistant Director: Heather Fairbairn
Acting Chorus Master: Michael Curtain
Acting Concertmaster: Huy-Nguyen Bui

Book tickets for Idomeneo here: https://opera.org.au/productions/idomeneo-sydney
What else is happening with Opera Australia: https://opera.org.au/whats-on/sydney
More about Canadian tenor Michael Schade: https://machreich-artists.com/en/artist/michael-schade

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