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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Idomeneo, Re di Creta

Sense, sensibility and yes, sea monsters in Mozart's mythic drama.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Image from the 1955 Ray Harryhausen picture It Came From Beneath the Sea.
© 1955 Clover Productions Incorporated.
In the year 1780, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 24 years old, he accepted a commission from the Elector of Bavaria to write a new opera for Carnival season the following year. The result was Idomeneo, re di Creta, his thirteenth opera and the earliest of his stage creations to retain a place in the standard repertory of the world's opera houses. Sprawling over three acts, this is a work of exceptional musical ambition and challenge to its performers, as it was created for the formidable orchestra and cast that were at the Elector's disposal.

Twenty years before, the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck had broken with opera seria tradition, abandoning the excessive ornamentation and old-fashioned da capo aria structure for taut, driving numbers that drove the opera forward with emphasis on dramatic unity. Like Gluck, Mozart went to Greek myth for his libretto, opting for the story if a Cretan king (the titular Idomeneo) forced into the position of having to sacrifice his own son in order to fulfill a sacred vow. The libretto, written by Giambattista Varesco, is not the opera's greatest strength.

Idomeneo is returning from the Trojan War when his ship is wrecked. He lands on the beach, and swears to Neptune, the god of the sea that he will sacrifice the next living creature he meets. He meets but does not recognize his son Idamante. The opera's plot turns on Idomeneo's crisis, made more difficult when a sea monster appears (offstage) and starts eating innocent bystanders. A subplot involves the Greek princess Elettra and her frustrated love for Idamante, one of the great crazed heroine parts and a kind of precursor of the Queen of the Night Eventually, Neptune forgives Idomeneo , Idamante becomes king, and the opera ends happily for everyone not named Elettra.

Although a performance of this opera can last up to four hours, it is a long immersion in Mozart at his most ambitious in terms of style and creativity. Heroic arias for these larger-than-life characters (particularly Elettra) show Mozart improving on the so-called "classical" style, creating a new rule book for composers.  There are important choral parts throughout the opera, and the orchestra indulges in descriptive passages, marches and ballets that contribute to the sense of pageantry but more importantly move the drama forward with the force of a hurrying wind.

The roles are all demanding, particularly Idomeneo, Elettra and Idamante, a part written for castrato and today most often sung by a mezzo-soprano. (Older recordings, as discussed below, substituted a light tenor, a solution Mozart himself condoned in a 1786 revival in Vienna.) Elettra's great aria "D'Oreste di Arsace" was not performed at the premiere but it is now considered a cornerstone of the work. In other words, it is up to the conductor and director to decide which music from the different versions of Idomeneo that they want to include.

In 1931, a number of opera houses staged new productions of Idomeneo to celebrate the opera's 150th birthday. Since then, it has re-entered the standard repertory and now has a place alongside the later Mozart operas as one of his most important, if not universally beloved stage works. It is not performed as frequently as the Da Ponte comedies or Die Zauberflöte, but it remains a singers opera that great tenors and sopranos have tackled with gusto. Here are five recordings of Idemoneo I've heard, owned and enjoyed.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (EMI Electrola 1971)
Heroic singing from Nicolai Gedda in the title role is the big attraction to this set, which was the "standard" version  of Idomeneo before a slew of recordings emerged in the 1990s. This important set restored all the traditional stage cuts to the opera, and features a strong cast with a tenor (Adolf Dallapozza) Idamante and old-school German singers in this very Italian opera.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv, 1990)
This was conductor John Eliot Gardiner's first deep dive into making a recording of a complete Mozart opera using 18th century instruments. The sound is crisp and refreshing throughout and the cast, led by the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson and the terrific Anne Sofie von Otter, is excellent. This recording is filled out by the extra scenes and ballets added to this opera in later years, and programming the tracks in the correct order can yield a very interesting alternate version of the work.

Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus cond. Colin Davis (Philips-London 1991)
Sir Colin Davis recorded Idomeneo twice. This is the preferred version, made especially for Philips' super-deluxe Complete Mozart Edition that was released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, and was instrumental in elevating the profile of this opera. The cast is very strong with Francesco Araiza in the title role, Suzanne Mentzer as Idamante and Julia Varady as Elettra. With Philips folded into the Decca label, this is currently out of print, but you may be able to find a used copy somewhere

Metropolitan Opera cond. James Levine (DG, 1997)
This was among the last major commercial recordings that James Levine made with the Met. It has a starry cast with Placido Domingo taking on the terrors of the title role and Cecilia Bartoli sounding oddly suited to Idamante.  The only hitch: Mr. Domingo chooses to sing the easier version of "Fuor del mar" in the last act, puts this recording down a notch.  Carol Vaness is a strong presence as Elettra. Thomas Hampson veers into tenor repertory in the supporting role of Arbace. The Met Orchestra play very well indeed.

Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra and Chorus (Glyndebourne, rec. 1964, released 2010)
This recording documents a production at the Glyndebourne Festival that did much to restore this opera's reputation with an English audience. The standard practice (at the time) of using tenors to sing the castrato role of Idamante resulted in the casting of a young hopeful named Luciano Pavarotti (he had been singing professionally for just three years at this point) in one of his earliest documented recordings. (Pavarotti would later go on to record the role of Idomeneo in a Decca studio recording, but that one isn't in my collection.) Anyway, the golden-throated one is in top form as Idamante, opposite the Ilia of Gundula Janowitz. Richard Lewis is Idomeneo. The score is heavily cut, but this live recording has sparkle and energy.

That was long, wasn't it? Here's your reward: Marliss Petersen 
taking on Elettra's aria from Idomeneo. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.