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Confronting our demons

Interview with Lorenzo Ponte

You developed your vision of Idomeneo by going beyond the libretto written by Varesco, drawing on multiple versions of the myth of the King of Crete. Can you tell us a little about your approach?

Lorenzo Ponte : It seems to me that the key to my approach is the word archaeology. Mozart's opera precedes us by centuries, just as the myth of Idomeneo precedes the composer and his librettist Varesco. By going back in time, our aim is to shed light on our contemporary era, in the same way that ancient history - archaeology - helps to explain our recent history. There are different versions of the same myth. After the Second World War, German writer Christa Wolf began to rewrite myths from a perspective that questioned the hegemony of the fathers. In 2023, we think we know the story of Idomeneo, but it continues to raise many questions: men and women are in the hands of the gods, a king's choices depend on the appearance of a monster, human sacrifice is acceptable and love is presented as a remedy for all ills. As for the denouement, a god apparently resolves the conflict and everyone is happy, except for one character - Electra - who cries out for vengeance. But what is this crime she swears to avenge? Is it really her disappointed love for Idamante? I think we need to look deeper: there's a hidden violence in this family. The son's sacrifice is presented as an accident, but it is the very foundation of this kingdom.

In your dramaturgy, you include the character of Méda - Idomeneo's wife - who is absent from the original libretto. It's true that the legend of Idomeneo is entirely a tragedy of the father, and that the absence of the mother is questionable...

Lorenzo Ponte: There is no reference in the opera to the Queen of Crete, wife of Idomeneo and mother of Idamante. In fact, it's difficult to find any trace of her in other literary sources. Her name was Meda and she was killed for treason. What was this treason that not only cost her her life, but also led to her being erased from history? Meda was killed because she saw, because she knew on what crime the kingdom of Crete was founded: the perpetual abuse of the child by the father. Around Idomeneos and his family, a culture has developed that accepts and celebrates sacrifice. Our setting is the 1960s. The high priest and the sacrifice he perpetuates are part of Christian liturgy, the father's religion. Religion conceals the truth, keeping men and women at a distance from the horror. Abuse is possible because it is tolerated by the community.

Electra is undoubtedly one of Mozart's most intriguing heroines. What role do you see her playing in your retelling?

Lorenzo Ponte: Electra is the one who reopens the wound. She's a woman in her thirties who embarks on a journey through memory and remembrance to uncover everyone's responsibilities. Through the memory of Queen Méda, she opens up the possibility of an order based not on violence and sacrifice, but on the protection of the most vulnerable. Our production recounts this memorial journey through analog photography. This work on memory becomes the work of creating an image, starting with a family album from which the mother's face has been removed. I must say that I'm very fond of the character of Electra, to whom Mozart gave his most luminous music. In a way, she reminds me of the composer himself: like her, he lost his mother two years before Idomeneo - like her, he had a tormented love life. In the Weber family, we know that he was in love with Josepha - creator of the role of the Queen of the Night - but that she preferred the actor Joseph Lange, after which Mozart married his sister Constance... It's possible that Mozart exorcised his wounds through the characters he portrayed. And I like the idea that theater should leave us untroubled, that it should confront us with our own demons.

Interview by Simon Hatab

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