This is a definite top 10 opera for me. Possibly even top 5. I’ve had a blast, this week, reacquainting myself with the six recordings I have of it. Generally accepted as Mozart’s first mature opera, it’s a fine example of opera seria. Despite our man acknowledging Gluck’s reforms – ballet is included and the shipwreck scene closing Act I at least nods to, if not blatantly steals from, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – all the classical Italian tropes are present and correct. Particularly in the secco and stromentato recitatives.
The libretto by Varseco is fashioned from an original text by Danchet, with a strong Mestastasion flavour. Thus both the drama and the music are a skilled amalgam of the French and Italian styles.
As all opera, indeed all music, lends itself to a variety of interpretations, there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ or ‘best’ reading. Most will have their charms. These three, however, are in my view the best three available and cover all the bases both the casual listener and discerning connoisseur might require.
Jon Eliot Gardiner’s authority in this repertoire is, of course, indisputable. Here, as in everything he approaches, impeccable scholarship and flawless musical instincts combine to produce probably the most authentic Idomeneo ever committed to disc. This is, essentially, the performance given at its premiere but ‘Jegsy’ has included the material an affronted and irked Amadeus was forced to cut from the score so fill your boots, dear listener.
Aided and abetted by his usual sidekicks, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (they deliver probably the best closing Act III ballet you’ll ever hear, by the way), Eliot Gardiner deploys stellar talent in the lead roles. Consummate pro that he is, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, stamps himself all over his titular role and, for my money, is a far better fit than the more mainstream bel canto tenors found in rival recordings.
But it’s the women who steal the show; Sophie von Otter’s Idamante is moving and never less than convincing; Sylvia McNair is liquid, pure and sumptuous while Hillevi Martinpelto is a mesmerizingly lacerating Elettra.
Charles Mackerras is no less an authoritative Mozartian than Jegsy, but of the old school. Albeit something of a period instrument/performance pioneer. That said, his score is complete, too, so makes for an interesting apples-to-apples comparison.
Bostridge, as Idomeneo, isn’t my first choice; a tad too smooth, shading dangerously close to blandness on occasions. Rolfe Johnson pops up here, as well, in the smaller Arbace role. While Lieberson (Idamante), Milne (Ilia) and Frittoli (Elettra) are all perfectly acceptable-to-excellent, Eliot Gardiner’s singers deliver that little bit more.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are outstanding, despatching the orchestral score with panache and a relaxed insouciance that disguises their commitment to the maestro’s vision.
With this performance, huge on excitement, the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. While Jegsy delivers gravitas and gripping solemnity, Mackerras winkles out the subtle humour hidden deep in the text, particularly Act II, and provides an exhilarating and good-natured reading. It’s marvellous fun and if encountering Idomeneo for the first time this is the most accessible reading available.
And so to René Jacobs. Crank or visionary? To many the man is marmite but it’s difficult to see why. Yes, he’s certainly idiosyncratic but the firmness of his intellectual grasp means anything he delivers doesn’t need to look long for strong supporting arguments.
His series of Mozart operas for Harmonia Mundi include some of the finest Mozart recordings of the modern age. Here, he goes further than even Jegsy and Charlie and includes every note willingly dispatched by Mozart himself! A courageous decision, to be sure. His reading features the least distinguished cast of the three but there are ample compensations. He is the better dramatist of the three and the human tragedy of the characters shines through stronger than in any other reading. You’ll either like his trademark (comparatively) breakneck tempi or you’ll howl in anguish but, for my money, it’s always at the service of the whole and sounds entirely natural in the context he sets for himself and his musicians.
Other highlights? I like what some might find to be the intrusive continuo and there is probably the best Act III quartet ever recorded. It’s electrifying, frankly.
The sound, too, is first rate. Combining clarity, depth and richness, it’s what hi-fi was made for. There is a bonus DVD, too, where Jacobs explains his thinking and approach which is well worth your time.
Serious collectors absolutely need all three. I couldn’t possibly do without any of them but if you’re an Idomeneo virgin I’d advise the MacKerras recording as your starting point.