MOZART: Idomeneo (complete opera) – Richard Croft (Idomeneo)/ Bernarda Fink (Idamante)/ Sunhae Im (Ilia)/ Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Elettra)/ Kenneth Tarver (Arbace)/ Nocolas Rivenq (Gran Sacerdote)/ Luca Tittoto (La Voce)/ RIAS Chamber Choir/ Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/ Rene Jacobs, conductor – Harmonia mundi 902036.38 (3 CDs + DVD) DVD – "Idomeneo: A Message of Humanity," 45:00; CDs: 3:11:06 ****1/2:
Idomeneo is a revolutionary opera. Not that it changed the course of operatic history (it didn’t) or that its vocal constructs are something innovative and original (they aren’t); but for the first time Mozart was able to take those marble statues and make them come to life. In this opera he takes his first step towards those humanistic constructs that infused all of his operas, and changes the ending of the original story (where Idomeneo kills his son Idamante) and instead has the king step down from the throne to make way for his son and new mate, Ilia.
The piece currently has around 30 recordings, though there is only one other period performance, that of John Eliot Gardiner from 1991, so the last comparison available – apples to apples – is now almost 20 years old, amazingly. Mozart merged French and Italian elements in this work, gave the chorus some phenomenal passages, and made great use of extended recitatives (which almost blur the distinction between them and the set pieces), for which the work has received a great deal of criticism. Jacobs is having none of it, making a case that the creative and improvisatory use of continuo adds to the opera’s dramatic context, and this recording demonstrates that in spades, though I will wager that some may find it a bit over the top. His tempos are also vintage Jacobs, meaning that you can never be sure when he is going to slow something down or boost the meter unexpectedly. This is what we have come to expect from him, and though I find some of his choices of questionable provenance, I am always glad to see him veer away from establish old-music doctrines and take a chance based on his own gut instincts about a piece of music.
The work is uncut with one appendage, something not seen before, and his dramatic instincts make a good case for the oftentimes cut passages’ inclusion. This is as complete an Idomeneo as you are going to find. Mozart himself set the example for the reduction when he made a number of changes (especially to Act III) before the Munich premiere, the Vienna performances sometimes even more drastically changed. In fairness the composer was busy making revisions up to the day of the first performance, so we cannot be sure that he didn’t have some misgivings himself. But the music that was cut is so beautiful it is hard to imagine that he would have jettisoned it in all but the most severe performance cases, mostly to assuage the complaints of singers as to the difficulty. One role, that of Idomeneo’s friend Arbace, has been eliminated altogether in some versions.
Mozart was also desirous of making a splash with his newest orchestral acquaintance, the famed Mannheim Orchestra. He holds nothing back in his explosive and energetic orchestral writing, coupled with some truly unsurpassed arias of exquisite beauty and drama. This is an opera that should be ranked with his very best, yet remains hidden, mainly because of some historical presuppositions that can no longer be considered valid.
As I mentioned, the Gardiner is the only one that we can fairly compare. The sound on that recording is every bit as vibrant as this new release, and I think, despite my love of the Freiburger’s burnished and vibrant sound, the English Baroque Soloists to be in possession of a more suave tonal palette, with a bigger feel to the band as a whole. Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Gardiner) might make a bigger splash as the misguided and tormented King Idomeneo, but I am not that partial to his voice and find the smoother if slicker sound of Richard Croft on this new release more to my liking. Idamante is sung to perfection by Bernarda Fink, at least until you compare her to Anne Sofie von Otter’s more formidable portrayal, probably because Von Otter has spent more time in trousers generally. Yet one cannot but applaud singing as lovely as what Fink delivers here. Ilia’s final arias are gloriously sung by Jacob’s Sunhae Im, surpassing the glossier portrayal by Sylvia McNair on the Gardiner. And one has to give a hearty thumbs-up to Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s wild and whacky Elettra, the one character deservedly short-changed in this opera.
Those desiring an updated look on modern instruments would do well to consider the new Mackerras recording on EMI. The accompanying DVD here is 45 minutes of interviews with the conductor and cast, explanations about the choices made, and rehearsal and performance excerpts – a fine addition to an already desirable release. Harmonia mundi’s production values, with excellent booklet and full multi-translated libretto, are as usual, superb.
— Steven Ritter