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Idomeneo review at Garsington Opera – ‘a star performance from Toby Spence’

Toby Spence in Idomeneo at Garsington Opera. Photo: Clive Barda
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Hannah Clark’s designs for Mozart’s opera set on Crete after the end of the Trojan War mix elements from the composer’s own period – Idomeneo was premiered in 1781 – with resonant contemporary imagery.

Two enormous shipping containers jut out of an angled surface of wooden floorboards. The one on the left opens to reveal a sequence of 18th-century interiors, cleverly changed each time the doors are closed to surprise the audience with new configurations. Out of the one on the right clamber Trojan prisoners of war, consciously referencing today’s refugees arriving on the southern shores of Europe. Clark’s costumes, too, blend ancient and modern.

Within these visuals director Tim Albery presents the narrative clearly, though the sea-monster that menaces the Cretan populace as a sign of Neptune’s displeasure is inevitably a challenge. Here the stage splits in two and members of the chorus suddenly become violently ill – though their realistic vomiting immediately before the long dinner interval is unfortunately timed.

The central casting is impressive, led by a star performance from Toby Spence, whose vividly voiced, internally conflicted Idomeneo is consistently involving. Caitlin Hulcup is vocally eloquent and convincingly male as his son Idamante. As the Trojan princess Ilia, Louise Alder’s gentle lyricism forms an ideal contrast with Rebecca von Lipinski’s fiery and flamboyant Elettra.

There’s focused support from Timothy Robinson as Idomeneo’s loyal friend Arbace, while Robert Murray makes the audience sit up with his intervention as the High Priest of Neptune. The sea-god himself is usually presented merely as a voice-off, but here Nicholas Masters gives him tangible and memorable form.

Whether portraying Trojan prisoners or the indigenous Cretan fishing community, Garsington’s chorus sings with tremendous attack, while the orchestra responds to conductor Tobias Ringborg’s flexible approach with a notable sense of historically informed style.

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Toby Spence shines as the conflicted Cretan king in a mixed-period staging