Despite being a relatively familiar title, Mozart’s Idomeneo is a challenging assignment for Buxton, with a clutch of demanding central roles and a substantial amount for the chorus to do.
Above all, this insistently high-flown work requires focused direction as well as keen musicianship from both conductor and orchestra. While the festival’s production undoubtedly aims high, not all of the required goals are achieved.
Isabella Bywater provides the single set, a spare and anonymous space evoking the ancient Cretan environment inundated by piles of sand thrown up by the sea that plays – either directly, or through the agency of the all-powerful sea-god Neptune – a central role in the plot. While Stephen Medcalf’s staging generally maintains interest, it lacks the ongoing focus and specificity of his best work.
In terms of casting, the daunting title role of the Cretan king unable to evade the implications of an incautious vow made to Neptune finds a determined though vocally limited exponent in Paul Nilon. Heather Lowe has more success with his conflicted son Idamante, while Rebecca Bottone is persuasive as the Trojan princess Ilia daughter of the defeated enemy with whom Idamante is in love. Madeleine Pierard hurls herself with conviction at the part of Ilia’s rival, the fiery yet ultimately thwarted Greek princess Elettra – though as with most sopranos the final aria taxes her.
Despite losing both his arias (amongst other cuts to this long piece), Ben Thapa gives Idomeneo’s adviser Arbace presence, while on the first night Luke Sinclair proved an effective vocal exponent of the High Priest while Richard Dowling – who had lost his voice – mimed the part.
The NCO Festival Orchestra is on exciting form, though as with Medcalf’s uneven staging the evening’s lack of consistent momentum is partly due to Nicholas Kok’s variable conducting.