There's something reassuringly old-fashioned about this release. For one thing it is a studio recording of an opera, not completely unheard of these days but far rarer than they used to be. There is a full libretto with English translation, another increasingly rare luxury. The packaging seems to be from a different age as well: the four discs come in one of those big double jewel cases, the first I've seen in a very long time.
The use of modern instruments would also seem like a throwback, were it not for the astute observance of 18th century performance conventions. The orchestra here is small, the brass are raspy when they need to be, and the timpanist regularly takes out his hard-headed sticks. To be honest it is oftenRead more easy to forget that modern instruments are being used. And I'm pleased to report that Fischer opts for harpsichord continuo, an option far preferable to the clattering fortepiano of René Jacobs' recent recording.
Fischer's loyalty to 18th century conventions means that nothing is ever taken to extremes, meaning that the musicality and contrast are expressed through subtle gradations of dynamics and vocal tone colour. The phasing, especially in the orchestra, is executed in a similarly precise and subtle manner. It's not that there is no variety or contrast, but rather that the music is articulated through the minutest of volume and attack changes.
Nor does the result lack drama. The tempestuous conclusion to the second act is as stirring as you could want, and never feels like it is straining against the historical conventions. The second half of act three is similarly emotive. The only singer who ever seems in danger of losing it, dramatically speaking, is Raffaella Milanesi as Elettra. But that is exactly what is required here, and by overstepping the civilised conventions to deliver her agonised final arias, she pinpoints the emotional crux of the opera and elegantly prepares the final joyous climax.
With the exception of Milanesi's Elettra, all of the other voices are very well balanced and matched, almost too much so perhaps. Each sings with narrow, finely controlled vibrato, which allows the many ensemble movements to cohere impressively. Christian Elsner sings the title role with restrained tone and emotion. In a more extrovert production that might be a problem, but it's ideal here. Christoph Stehl struggles with a few of the high notes as Abrace, but otherwise fits well into the style of the performance. The majority of the running time of the opera is taken up with solos by the female leads, all of whom (apart from Milanesi) have a similarly refined, controlled and balanced tone. In fact, it is useful to have the libretto to hand because it can be very difficult to tell them apart.
The SACD sound is excellent. Superior audio is a real asset in this kind of performance, as it allows the detail of the sound to come through without the performers having to make anachronistic excesses in their dynamics for the sake of the audio clarity. The orchestra is put under exceptional scrutiny by the microphones, and bar one or two tiny slips does very well. The presence of sound from the wind, brass and percussion is impressive, and is in stark contrast to recordings made in opera pits. But even with this level of detail lavished on the orchestral sound, it is always the singers who come first. The limited range of dynamics means that you can turn up the volume with impunity. That really benefits the singers, who gain even more presence for the sake of a few notches on the volume dial.
All round then, a good buy. If you are comparing the price against the number of CDs, it is probably worth bearing in mind the disc four is only 13 minutes long, containing as it does the original ballet music. This too is well played and is a valuable extra.
Long gone are the days when Idomeneo languished as a neglected masterpiece. This recording enters a market place that is now as competitive as any, but it deserves to do well. A historically astute, sensitive and absorbing performance, recorded to the highest of modern standards and beautifully presented too.