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Mozart: Idomeneo / Pears, Pashley, Britten

Britten / Mozart / Pears / Pashley / Eco
Release Date: 07/08/2008 
Label:  Decca   Catalog #: 001148009  
Composer:  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Heather HarperPeter PearsRobert TearRae Woodland,   ... 
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MOZART Idomeneo Benjamin Britten, cond; Peter Pears ( Idomeneo ); Heather Harper ( Ilia ); Rae Woodland ( Elektra ); Anne Pashley ( Idamante ); Robert Tear ( Arbace ); English Op Ch; English CO DECCA ELOQUENCE Read more class="ARIAL12"> 074 3258 (2 DVDs: 163:28 Text and Translation)

This was originally planned as a staged performance for the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival, of which Benjamin Britten was the artistic director. The idea was to perform the work at the Festival, and then record it in the Festival’s hall for BBC television. However, three days before the opening night, the hall burned down, destroying the sets and most costumes for the production as well as the hall itself. Miraculously, an unstaged performance was hastily assembled and put on in a church on the scheduled date! But for television, where staging and scenery were essential, some quick reworking was necessary. That it happened, and happened as well as it did, is nothing short of a miracle. On September 8 and 9, 1969, with new scenery and a mixture of old and new costumes, Idomeneo was recorded for television at the London Opera Center (the BBC studios were too small to accommodate a staged performance unless you put the orchestra in one studio and the singers in another, and Britten wisely refused to go along with that scheme). The staging is by Colin Graham, and the direction for television by Brian Large.

This cannot be recommended as a basic Idomeneo for a variety of reasons. One is that it is sung in English, and sometimes the language and the music go together awkwardly. Another is that Britten has made some cuts and rearrangements that make sense for the purposes of this production, but are not an accurate representation of Mozart’s work. And I suspect that one of the cuts, the fiendish tenor aria “Fuor del mar,” was made not for reasons of dramatic shape, but because its difficulties were beyond what Peter Pears could handle.

That brings us to the third flaw in this performance—and it is painful to point it out, because one has so much respect for the career of Peter Pears. But the truth is that he is sometimes a chore to listen to in this role. Pears was 59 in 1969, and he sounds every bit of it. The voice lacks any cushion at all, but sounds dry and threadbare, and is occasionally afflicted with a wobble as well. There is no question about his musical intelligence, nor about the fact that he is a strong presence on stage. But the singing set me on edge as often as it provided satisfaction.

All of that having been said, however, for those who love this opera and would be interested in having more than one video representation of it (or who are satisfied with their audio recordings and would like a DVD as an alternative version), there is much about this performance that is irreplaceable. To begin with, Britten’s conducting. Some might call it “old fashioned,” for it certainly isn’t in sync with today’s HIP scholarship (but then, neither am I). It is richly colored, highly nuanced, rhythmically firm while retaining great lyricism and breadth, and above all impassioned. It may be that the circumstances of the performance post-fire inspired Britten and everyone else, but this is an Idomeneo that jumps off the screen and engages the viewer completely.

The rest of the singing is excellent, in particular the three ladies. (Britten uses Mozart’s original casting of Idamante as a mezzo instead of the composer’s revision of the role for tenor—I, too, prefer Mozart’s first thoughts, as the latter version gives us three tenors in important roles, which is one tenor too much.) Anne Pashley sings wonderfully, though she would never convince anyone that she is actually a male. All of the other roles are handled superbly, and there is a great feeling of ensemble about the performance. The staging and setting are largely conventional and effective, save for the silly monster from Neptune’s world, which looks like something out of a Grade B Japanese horror movie (well, perhaps Grade C). Brian Large’s camera direction is just what we’ve come to expect from one of the preeminent television directors for opera and classical music—not fussy, very musical and sensitive.

The 1969 sound is extremely well balanced and natural, with a very good voice/orchestra perspective. The spoken introductions to each act by British musicologist John Warrack set the scenes very nicely, and the essay that comes with the booklet is a helpful background for this particular production. Although the performance is sung clearly in English, English titles are available (as are French, German, Spanish, and Chinese).

In sum, this is a very worthwhile and valuable document of a treasurable, if flawed, performance of Idomeneo . A more basic recommendation for Idomeneo on DVD would be Kultur 2557 (Hadley, Vaness, and Haitink) or DG 617509 (a Met production with Pavarotti a pleasant surprise, Cotrubas, Behrens, and James Levine).

FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Peter Pears (Idomeneo)
Anne Pashley (Idamante)
Heather Harper (Ilia)
Rae Woodland (Elektra)
Robert Tear (Arbace)
English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten

Format: NTSC DVD 9
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Region: 1-6 (All)
LPCM Stereo / DTS 5.1 Surround or Enhanced mono tbc
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese
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Works on This Recording

Idomeneo, K 366 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Heather Harper (Soprano), Peter Pears (Tenor), Robert Tear (Tenor),
Rae Woodland (Soprano), Anne Pashley (Soprano)
Conductor:  Benjamin Britten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English Chamber Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1781; Munich, Germany 
Date of Recording: 1969 

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