Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2022 Review: Idomeneo

Miyagi’s Reading Misfires To Create A Static & Dull Staging

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

As a rule of thumb, you know that if you have to rely on the director’s program notes to make sense of what is happening on stage, then the production is likely to disappoint.

Of course, even in such circumstances it is sometimes possible to develop an intuitive understanding, even where the explicit meaning remains elusive, which in itself can be very satisfying, especially in cases where it stimulates a reconsideration of what has previously been taken for granted, and forces one to search for explanations and view the drama from different perspectives.

However, on other occasions, the director’s ideas remain inaccessible without an explanation, and this represents a failure on a basic communicative level: how can an audience interact and engage with a production which cannot communicate its ideas? Providing program notes does not cut it, the theatrical event should be a self-contained experience, in which everything that is needed is to be found within the libretto, the music and the staging, to which the audience brings its own understanding of the world. This is the rewarding challenge which theatre has to offer.

Having to guess at what essential information the director is reserving solely for his notes is not an interesting add-on, it is a failing.

Miyagi’s Baffling Direction

Satoshi Miyagi’s at times baffling production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” for the Aix-en-Provence festival was such an experience. The principal characters, who were never in touching distance with each other, stood on top of pedestals, took on fairly static poses, faced the audience and sung. They were required to do very little in the way of acting. They were pushed on and off, and around the stage by members of the chorus, dressed as Japanese soldiers, situated inside the plinths on which they stood. The meaning of all this became clear, however, after the production had finished, when there was time to read an interview with Miyagi printed in the program. By then, however, frustration had already taken firm root.

For Miyagi, the story of “Idomeneo” has strong connotations with Japan in 1945. During the Second World War, the Japanese people believed that they were fighting for the survival of their society and their emperor. If they died, and Japan was defeated in the process, they expected that their emperor would cease to exist. Japan was defeated, but the emperor remained in place, and the people felt betrayed. They had died and suffered, yet the emperor, along with other leaders of Japanese society, retained their positions. If there were any heroes here, surely it was the people who had died, who had given up their lives for their society and their emperor.

There are certainly parallels with “Idomeneo.” After all, it is the innocent Cretan people who suffer Neptune’s wrath, and not Idomeneo himself, even though he is the one actually responsible for angering the god. It is not an unreasonable step, therefore, to view them as the narrative’s real heroes. So it was that Miyagi decided to situate the people at the centre of his reading, and relegate the attention given to its main characters, and in the process fog the narrative; everything had to be redefined in some way to fit with this position.

The soldiers who moved the pedestals were, in fact, the souls of the dead, trapped in a kind of prison, unable to reach Nirvana. They have not forgiven Idomeneo for his- betrayal, they were still angry. It is they who moved the earth, and who now dictated events, not Idomeneo, nor others in positions of power. And so it continued. Elettra, for example, having been betrayed by her class, was redefined as one of “the people,” so she is not fixed to a pedestal, but is able to roam freely, while Neptune, in the form of a record player, was recast as “the voice of the people.” Unfortunately, none of this is clear without Miyagi’s commentary, and so proved an unsatisfying theatrical experience, regardless of Miyagi’s interesting insights.

Kayo Takahashi Deschene’s costuming of the chorus as Japanese soldiers from the Second World War now becomes understandable, which he added to with traditionally informed Japanese attire with hints of classical antiquity for most of the soloists.

Within the context devised by Miyagi, the sets, designed by Junpel Kiz, worked well. The movement of the pedestals around the stage, aided by Yukkio Yoshimoto’s sensitive lighting, occasionally created some interesting arrangements and aesthetically pleasing scenic patterns. They also teamed up to create an excellent portrait of the people’s suffering in Act three, which consisted of a backdrop of violent, frightening images that recalled Goya’s ‘black paintings,’ which turned blood red as the people started dying in a conflagration.

Choreographer Akiko Kitamura was particularly successful in the management of the chorus, enhancing its profile with imaginatively designed dance and choral scenes. However, although she was able to promote its position, that is the position of the Cretan people, and despite Miyagi’s intentions, she was never able to elevate it above that of the soloists, around which the drama is inevitably going to rotate.

Directorial Decisions Deliberately Slow The Dramatic Flow

A consequence of Miyagi’s directorial approach, in which the soloists were often isolated, moved only intermittently, and in which the physical portrayal of emotions was often held in check, is that it gave credence to people who criticize opera seria for being an overly static form of opera.

However, this was not an unintended consequence, rather this was Miyagi’s intention. He wanted to develop the opportunity presented by the insertion of static arias between fast moving recitatives, to open up a different perspective, one in which the protagonists are talking not to each other, but directly to the gods. He did not wish to present life-sized characters, with whom the audience could identify, as this prevents them from seeing “…how history is made or (how) the human being is constituted,” rather he wished to provide a divine perspective, a macroscopic point of view, “like a bird looking down from above,” in which we can see “the order of the world,” something he believes has been lost to modern theatre. On reflection, this was a very interesting viewpoint, and certainly one worth consideration, but it was not one which would have necessarily sprung to mind without the program notes.

A Musically Satisfying Performance

The musical side of the performance was under the direction of Raphaël Pichon, who provided a sensitive and detailed reading from the Pygmalion orchestra, although it was occasionally somewhat understated. However, the pleasing rhythmic quality that he managed to elicit from the orchestra added energy and much needed dramatic support to the static staging. Pichon also displayed skill in handling the balance between the orchestra and the stage, with the choral episodes particularly well managed. There was never a sense that any party was struggling to assert themselves.

The trio of female soloists, all of whom possessed very different vocal qualities, engaged with their role in different ways, but all did so superbly.

Soprano Sabine Devieihle captured the attention with a beautifully sung portrayal of Ilia. She possesses a well-supported, bright, clear-toned voice, able to deliver leaps, delicate embellishments and coloratura passages with consummate ease, marked by precision and wonderful vocal control. Her top notes have wonderful body and strength, her seamless legato lies pleasingly on the ear, and her voice fills out beautifully as it increases in volume. Owing to the nature of the production, she had little to do in the way of physical acting which, for the most part, consisted of little more than taking up a statuesque pose. Her singing was centered on beauty rather than emotional depth, which is not to say that she failed to bring expressivity to her performance. Her Act three aria “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” in which she bids the wind take her message of love to Idamante was tenderly and delicately rendered, and her recitatives were always clearly and vividly delivered

Although mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus, in the role of Idamante, also spent most of the evening standing statue-like on her plinth, her singing performance was far from static. Using the prodigious versatility of her voice, she brought emotional intensity and expressive depth to her portrayal, which to a large extent overshadowed her lack of physical expression. From her first aria “Non ho colpa” in which Idamante blames the gods for his fate, her detailed phrasing was boldly and subtly woven with colorful inflections, nuanced emphases and dynamic accents to successfully express the depth of his feelings. In the lightly orchestrated sections of the aria her voice shone, highlighting in full the wonderful control and flexibility of her voice. Her portrait was of a forceful and emotional Idamante, one which was captured almost solely by the voice.

Such is the wild emotional strength of Elettra’s character, it would have been a ridiculous decision to have soprano Nicole Chevalier, who played the role, standing passively on her plinth throughout the evening. Miyagi, therefore, had little option, but to allow her to roam freely around the stage, although his intellectual justification for doing so, remained unconvincing.

It is often the case, given the nature of Elettra’s arias, that the singer playing the role receives the loudest applause from the audience during the performance. And Chevalier certainly did not waste the opportunity, for which she was enthusiastically rewarded for what was an emotionally strong presentation, both from a singing and acting viewpoint. She used her voice with intelligence and skill over her entire range, moving from passages of delicacy to fiery outbursts with ease, thereby brilliantly capturing Elettra’s extreme emotional states, while displaying an impressive level of vocal versatility and control. Her final aria “Ah! Smania… D’Oreste d’Aiace,” obviously stood out, in which she let rip with a blistering emotional explosion, full of coloratura raging and vocal effects.

Idomeneo was parted by tenor Michael Spyres whose performance for most of the evening was excellent. He sang with a great deal of expressivity and versatility, and was able to fill out long, well-crafted lines with plenty of emotional detail. The voice was powerfully projected, well-supported with attractive timbre. His recitatives were strongly delivered, capturing their dramatic importance through the use of dynamic, colorful and emotional accents. Similarly, arias were presented with plenty of  attention to their emotional content. He also looked the part, with his appearance meeting the expectations of what one would expect of a king from antiquity, with long hair and long white robes. On occasions, however, although admittedly not often, he did sound a little uncomfortable, and the voice lost its rich sheen, even to the point of sounding a little brittle, and gave his singing a mechanical, unfocused feel.

The tenor Linard Vrielink was cast in the unenviable role of Arbace, which is not a particularly interesting part, and which his dull costume accentuated. He portrayed him as bookish and dry, and sang the part correctly with a refined manner, and successfully brought out his unquestioning loyalty to Idomeneo.

Tenor Kresimir Spicer was parted as the High Priest, producing a strong authoritative performance in which his confrontation with Idomeneo allowed him to display his ability to deliver dramatically sensitive recitatives.

The bass Alexandros Stavrakakis recorded the voice of Nettuno, which was played over the speakers.

“Idomeneo” has plenty of choral numbers, so the Chorus of Opéra de Lyon had plenty of work to do, apart from pushing the soloists’ plinths around the stage. It nevertheless, gave a superb performance, singing with sensitivity and plenty of energy, and their skill in building crescendos was spine tingling. The members of the chorus representing the people were meant to be Miyagi’s heroes. They were not, they could never be, but they all performed exceptionally well.

All in all, this was not a successful production. Miyagi’s direction failed to provide a coherent narrative, and lacked the necessary energy or movement to engage the audience. His ideas, interesting enough in themselves, did not translate on to the stage, and should have been reserved for a monograph. Fortunately, musically this was a very good presentation, and made the evening a worthwhile experience.


ReviewsStage Reviews