Gods! Did they ever mean well with us poor humans? We were provoked and incited by them only to be tormented and punished, with no defence at all. After all: did we really have free will? The divine decree was law and we could not escape the fate predestined for us. All this can be read in the thick book called ‘Mythology’, from which the greatest (stage) writers, poets, painters and composers have liberally drawn.
El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, c. 1904.
Take the Trojan War, for instance. It all started with an apple and a ‘Miss Goddess – contest’ and hundreds of thousands of human beings suffered as a result. The jury was bribed with the promise of love from the most beautiful woman in the world, but this promise failed to add that she was already married and her husband might claim her. If not voluntary then forced.
The war lasted no less than ten years and by the end, just about all the heroes were dead or cursed by the gods who, after all, had caused the whole situation. And don’t think, you can catch your breath now, because after the war we had to deal with the real post-Trojan War traumas (I’m not making it up!) and the gods were also still arguing amongst themselves.
Idomeneo, king of Crete, returns to his country, but things don’t go smoothly. He ends up in a huge sea storm and promises Neptune to sacrifice to him the first creature he encounters on his return. But this happens to be his own son, Idamante! Oops!
Loopholes are sought, but gods are obviously smarter. And then we have a triangle relationship: Elletra (yes, Agememnon’s daughter) has fled to Crete and fallen in love with Idamante. But so has Ilia, the captured daughter of King Priam of Troy. Anyway – if you do not know the full story, just read it.
We will now deal with the various performances of the opera.
Personally, I have never found Idomeneo to be Mozart’s strongest opera and I was never really impressed. But now, after repeated listening and re-listening, I have had to revise my opinion. Because the music, it really is genius after all!
Anton Raaff, de eerste vertolker van de rol van Idomeneo
Sir Charles Mackerras
To get right to the point – I personally think the 2001 recording by Warner Classics (5099994823820) conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras is the very best. It does have one downside (about that later), but that could also be down to my personal taste.
To start with the smaller roles, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Arbace) has a voice of pure gold. It is a pleasure to listen to him and I can never get enough. One can only wonder: why Arbace and not Idomeneo himself? Yes, I know he recorded the role for Gardiner, but, so what?
Paul Charles Clarke is a fantastic Supreme Priest, chilling yet a real human at the same time. La Voce is very impressively sung by the then very young John Relya.
Barbara Frittoli is a wonderful Elettra. Hurt, and yearning for revenge, yet ultimately resigned to her fate. I would have liked to have heard a bit more drama, but her rendition fits in nicely with the conductor’s vision.
Lisa Milne’s rendition of Ilia is perhaps the finest I have ever heard. Lovely she is, but also loving and very determined. Her soprano is ‘liquid’ – think, warm honey, but with a peppery touch. To that, the warm, tormented mezzo of the lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson fits like a glove. Together, they sound as if they were indeed always a unit.
And now for my minus: Ian Bostridge’s Idomeneo. Not yet as vain, narcissistic and mannered, which so marred his recordings and performances in recent years, but he sounds so incredibly ordinary! Not a tormented king, but the next-door neighbour. He singing is clean, but his coloratures are sparse – and this for someone coming from the Baroque tradition!
The score is pretty much complete, not even the ballet at the end is missing. It is usually omitted, and as far as I am concerned absolutely rightly so. It is nothing but an anticlimax and, after listening to it once, I never listened to it again. There is a brief booklet with the track list, but the box also includes a bonus CD with synopsis and the complete libretto.
In 1996, Deutsche Grammophon (4477372) recorded the opera conducted by maestro James Levine with just about the Metropolitan Opera’s biggest stars of the time. No idea if it is idiomatic, but I find it HUGE!
Levine’s muscular conducting brings out hidden treasures and in no other performance can you hear how progressive the music really is! The tempi are obviously brisk, but nowhere rushed and most of the voices are overwhelming.
The role of Arbace is curiously taken by a baritone. Well, Thomas Hampson’s timbre is indeed more like that of a tenor and he is more beautiful in the highs than in the lows, but Mozart explicitly asked for a (light!) tenor. But it is not disturbing, quite the contrary. Especially since Hampson manages to fill in the role of the king’s confidant so perfectly.
Frank Loppardo is no match for Clarke with Mackerras, but he holds his own in the small but very heavy part of the Chief Priest.
Bryn Terfel is a very strong La Voce, his sound will automatically make you shiver with fear.
Carol Vaness (Elettra) sounds surprisingly lyrical. Fortunately, she picks up nicely at ‘Oh smania! O furie!”, exactly as we have come to expect from her. Delicious! Yes, she is an Elettra after my own heart!
Heidi Grant Murphy (Ilia) is a bit out of place in the big voice fest. Her pouty timbre reminds me a lot of Kathleen Battle, not really my ‘cup of tea’.
Cecilia Bartoli is a very virtuoso Idamante, very convincing too, though she sounds a bit too feminine at times.
Finally, Plácido Domingo’s Idomeneo is exactly what we expect from him: with his beautiful, warm tenor, his regal recitation and his commitment, he makes Idomeneo a very emotional and mostly very humane king.
Pier Luigi Pizzi
From Teatro San Carlo in Naples comes Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production, recorded in 2004 (Dynamic 33463). The direction is typical Pizzi – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Very realistic, but with a twist and lots of male (semi-)nudity. Lots of ballet too and the colours are mainly black and white with a touch of red. Only Elettra brings in an extra colour. Her purple outfit must – I assume – represent her fury. The setting has a strong cardboard feel to it and there is a lot of lying on the floor, singing.
To be honest, by now I have had enough of it, of nudity and nappies, over the years I have seen more than enough of them. But one thing I have to give Pizzi credit for: his productions are always exciting and his character direction very competent. It also has a very Greek feel to it.
Jörg Schneider (Arbace) is on the very light side. His voice is definitely beautiful, but I miss the expression. The Chief Priest (Dario Magnabosco) doesn’t really come across, a pity, and about La Voce I’ll keep quiet: he is barely audible. Perhaps he should have been amplified?
Iano Tamar is an outstanding Elettra. She impresses not only with her appearance and acting, but also with her singing. That’s how I like to hear it.
I had more trouble with Angeles Blancas Gulin’s Ilia. Beautiful woman, good actress, but so incredibly Callas-focused. And I found her singing really annoying at times, since it is often not on pitch.
Sonia Ganassi is perhaps the best Idamante ever. Not only is her singing most beautiful, her coloratures are perfect and her timbre warm. For her alone, the DVD is more than worth it.
Kurt Streit was once among my favourite tenors. He is also very much in his prime here. Listen to his undoubtedly impressive ‘Fuor der mar’, even if it doesn’t sound entirely pure:
Anyway, compared to Dieter Dorn’s production, shot in Munich in June 2008 (Medici Arts 2072448), Pizzi can pass for the best director in the world. Dorn starts with slaps, blood and violence. What is this all about? Surely the war ended long ago? But maybe we’re looking back? Or are these Idomeneo’s nightmares?
And where and when is it all taking place: it could be Crete, but we could also have ended up in Africa. Could also be Munich in June 2008. The characters look most like a mixture of hippies and Hells Angels in African costumes, but maybe those are really Martians? Oh well. Why not. Sigh.
The choreography is disturbing, in itself there is nothing against that. The storm is nicely depicted – unfortunately the images don’t make sense. And why are, during Elettra’s first aria, the extras covered in blood? Furthermore, there is a continuous running through the hall – those poor people sitting upstairs and/or to the side. Bet they couldn’t see anything at all.
Rainer Trost is a pretty much perfect Arbace in terms of voice, but if you want to enjoy his singing, you have to close your eyes and keep it that way. What on earth the director came up with for him… !
Juliane Banse is a beautiful Ilia. Her voice is small and limited, but very beautiful in timbre. Moreover, she is a more than convincing actress.
Annette Dasch (Elettra) is a young attractive singer, who shot up like a comet and has made a huge career within a short time. Don’t ask me why. I find her just plain ordinary. Oh yes, she is good, sure, but that good? In the recording, she sounds distant and not even completely pure.
For Idamante, they surprisingly chose a tenor. Nothing against it, especially if the tenor in question is called Pavol Breslik and possesses a wonderfully lyrical timbre. But you should prepare your ears for a different sound.
John Mark Ainsley is Idomeneo. I could not take my eyes off him. Such an actor! And what a voice! You will surely instantly forget the ridiculous direction. For his performance alone, I wouldn’t want to miss the DVD – you must see and hear it at least once.
Below trailer of the production:
As a bonus, I have for you Sena Jurinac as Ilia in ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’. This is the very essence of beauty.