Notes and Editorial Reviews
Mozart intended Idomeneo to be an opera of great significance to help advance his career. Adapted from the tragédie lyrique Idomenée, written 67 years earlier by Antoine Danchet, Mozart’s opera is an old-fashioned opera seria with some rather progressive innovations. Recitatives were frequently accompanied and imbued with melody so they flowed smoothly into the arias; Mozart expanded the role of the chorus and filled the opera with splashy marches and arias that added dimension to the characters. Considering that it was composed for a cast of singers many of whom were of limited vocal means or past their prime, the brilliance of his music is astonishing. The opera become a turning point in Mozart’s career.
plot is a familiar one. Idomeneo promises to murder the first person he encounters as an appeasement to Neptune for saving his life. Unfortunately, the first person Idomeneo meets is his son, Idamante. It is a story strikingly similar to the Biblical tale of Jephthah and his daughter. Sacrifice operas were a popular commodity for well over a century, providing abundant pathos as well as dramatic situations. Idomeneo exists in two versions: the original conception, written in 1781 (Munich), and a 1786 revision intended to accommodate performances in Vienna, where Mozart had better talent at his disposal. The two most noteworthy changes are the expansion of the role for Arbace and reassigning the role of Idamante from castrato to tenor. Mozart, realizing the extreme length of his opera, began the practice of making numerous cuts; almost every performance and recording since has required decisions concerning which version to use and what material to jettison. This Opera d’Oro recording brings us a 1971 staging of the Munich version. Instead of a countertenor, the role of Idamante is sung by a woman, Jessye Norman, and the role of Arbace is reduced to the point it is almost musically negligible. The performance has numerous cuts, mostly in the recitatives, yet it is still a cohesive production, often very exciting, and features some outstanding performances.
Jessye Norman is reason enough to investigate this recording. Young and in radiant voice, she is a wonderful Idamante. Gedda makes more out of Idomeneo than he does in the studio recording made a year later. Rae Woodland has a lighter voice than usually found in the role of Electra, but she is no less dramatic. Her rendering of “D’Oreste, d’Aiace” in act III is one of the highlights. Colin Davis recorded the opera twice in the studio, but, for all the merits of those recordings, he seems more passionately involved in this production captured in performance.
This is the same recording previously available as Opera d’Oro 1340. As part of Opera d’Oro’s “Grand Tier” series, it is now repackaged with more attractive cover art, a cardboard slipcase, a booklet with interesting notes and libretto, and more than twice the price. The sound, while no match for most of the studio recordings, is pretty good. It’s in stereo, there is a nice balance between the singers and orchestra, extraneous stage noises are minimal, the audience is quiet, and applause is limited to ends of acts and following certain key arias.
For people interested in only one recording of Idomeneo or a more complete recording of the score, there is a large selection from which to choose. Sir Charles Mackerras on Telarc and Levine on DG both offer moving accounts played on modern instruments, and readers who prefer Mozart played on period instruments are likely to find much to like with Gardiner on Archiv. I wouldn’t recommend this Opera d’Oro as a first choice Idomeneo, mostly because of the cuts, but Norman, Gedda, and Davis captured in their prime are hard to resist. With this recording available in two editions the decision whether to pay the higher price for a libretto is one only you can make.
David L. Kirk, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Idomeneo, K 366 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Nicolai Gedda (Tenor),
Elvira Spica (Soprano),
Carla Virgili (Soprano),
Rae Woodland (Soprano),
Jessye Norman (Soprano),
Heather Harper (Soprano),
Andrea Snarski (Baritone),
Antonio Liviero (Tenor),
Franco Pugliese (Bass Baritone)
Sir Colin Davis
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Rome,
Italian Radio Chorus Rome
Written: 1781; Munich, Germany
Date of Recording: 03/25/1971
Venue: Live Rome, Italy
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