Garsington Opera is now in its 28th season. Established in 1989 by Leonard Ingrams, it was originally held in Garsington Manor in Oxford, before relocating to Wormsley Park in 2011. We were there to see Idomeneo, an opera seria written by Mozart (when he was only 24) – and often seen as the first of his great operas.
The plot proceeds classically.
The story of Idomeneo follows the plight of the prisoner-princess Ilia and captor-prince Idamante. Ilia, daughter of Priam, has been captured post-Troy. Idomeneo – father of Idamante and Ilia's enemy – thought to be lost at sea, is washed ashore. His life spared under a binding promise to Neptune, he has agreed to sacrifice the first creature he comes across.
Idomeneo, desperately searching for a loophole, rejects his son, exiling him to rule in Argos (home of unhappy love rival to Ilia, Elettra).
-Enter sea serpent
Ilia, against her rationality, confesses her love to Idamante. Idamante no longer wants to leave. Idomeneo forces him to leave. Idamante goes to seek his death with said sea-serpent. Ilia is unhappy. Elettra is unhappy. Idomeneo is unhappy. The town people – blighted by both a mysterious plague and sea serpent – are unhappy.
Idamante is victorious! The serpent is dead. Idomeneo is (rightly) concerned that Neptune will not be impressed at this outcome, and confesses the truth to the people. They are horrified, but all (including Idamante) agree that it's probably best to just sacrifice Idamante.
Ilia steps in. She will sacrifice herself. For love.
(Neptune has second thoughts.)
Love saves the day! Neptune allows Idamante to live, provided that Idomeneo relinquishes the throne. Everyone celebrates, aside from Elettra.
The performance is masterful. The juxtaposition, for example, between the protagonists and chorus adds an interesting nuance to the aesthetic. Ilia, Elettra, Idomeneo and Idamante are in classic opera garb, whilst the chorus don small blue hats and doc martens. The set itself is sparse, with two shipping containers set almost in parallel. One is used as both Ilia's bedroom and Idomeneo's palace. The other is purely used as a prison, from which a number of bedraggled Trojans are released in Act 1. It makes for a striking scene, with a simple backdrop of the ocean.
Architecturally, the Opera house itself is embedded within the performance. The large glass windows allow for trees to peer in, and for the first twenty minutes a small bird fluttered around the stage, chirping alongside Ilia's arias.
This is the beauty of Garsington: the entire experience becomes part and parcel of the performance. The interval between Acts 2 and 3 is eighty minutes long, and most guests go to dinner in a sumptuously yonder marquee. (We eat in the car). But regardless, ensconced within a remarkably different narrative from the day-to-day world, it is almost impossible to reattach to reality. The rain becomes pathetic fallacy; the hills, Blake-esque symbols of a frighteningly human claim to land (it may also be important to note this was Brexit day).
It is interesting that Varesco, the librettist, revised the ending for his Idomeneo to save Idamante from sacrifice. In the (highly) informative programme, an insertion from Nicholas Till's Mozart and the Enlightenment makes the biographical claim that sacrifice held a certain resonance for the composer, associating it with his own relationship of his father. Freudian analysis aside, I wonder why Elettra remains the only lost character. Why does she not deserve recompense? In many ways, she and Idomeneo are parallel characters. Both are self-serving and domineering, both trying to save (or claim) those they love. Rebecca von Lipinski plays Elettra, and though perhaps slightly weaker in the strength of her voice, she is inherently pitiable - falling to the ground, crying out against the 'demons', and finally, clutching knives, led weeping offstage.
Opera, as a form, holds a special power of catharsis. The power of the individual voice, especially potent on such a bare stage, bursts with it a sort of primacy akin to the animal. And yet dealing with such human topics; politics, love, land, sacrifice - these are universal themes, firmly rooted to one place and a few voices. It is a strangely unsettling and wonderful treat.