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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Idomeneo - opera in three acts KV366
Idomeneo ... Richard Lewis (tenor)
Idamante ... Leo Goeke (tenor)
Ilia ... Bozena Betley (soprano)
Electra ... Josephine Barstow (soprano)
Arbace ... Alexander Oliver (tenor)
The High Priest of Neptune ... John Fryatt (tenor)
The Voice of Neptune ... Dennis Wicks (bass)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
The London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Pritchard
Recorded at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1974
DVD ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 079 [125:00]


There is one powerful reason for purchasing this DVD, namely Josephine Barstow, now Dame Josephine. To see and hear her in this 1974 Glyndebourne production, some thirty years ago, is a treat which on repeated playing becomes a joy. Remember that within the last two years Dame Josephine was still taking leading roles in her beloved Opera North.

Sadly the treat does not extend to the John Cox production. It was not an overwhelming success in 1974 and age has not improved it. However what the DVD provides is an insight into a stylised production of the 1970s that contrasts so strongly with many present day re-inventions. This is the stuff of ‘stand and deliver’ arias, ‘coiffed’ hair for all and good looks verging on the ‘pretty boy’. Of course, this is not a free-flowing action-packed opera; nor is it a dramatic masterpiece. It is Mozart’s first great opera: great for its almost overwhelming musical beauty, of which some, but not all, is captured here.

As the brief accompanying notes explain, only excerpts of the first Act are shown; so abbreviated indeed that Act I has been cut to just over fifteen minutes. Later scenes also experience cuts with omitted recitative and shortened arias to pack the whole into just over two hours. This is compared with the conventional four hours including the ballet which is completely omitted here.

Curiously although the notes refer to the earlier 1951 Glyndebourne staging as the English première of this opera, they do not mention that Richard Lewis sang the title role. Of course this is ‘age in reverse’ to the Barstow timing in that it was 23 years after that première that this recording was made. What we are watching is the first English Idomeneo re-create his role. Sadly it disappoints. In the very effective close-ups there is a suggestion of the 1920s style of acting. Vocally his voice seems somewhat dry and lacking in power. Fuor del mar does not achieve its usual triumphalism.

Idamante is the good looking Leo Goeke, directed in an ‘heroic’ style of acting which seems to close him down musically until the final scene when he opens out expansively. His Ilia is Bozena Betley who the camera gives us every opportunity to admire in close-up. Her diction is not the best and stands in marked contrast to the particular clarity of both Lewis and Goeke. She is not helped by a slight aural blurring on the DVD when she is in her higher range at forte. It makes her sound slightly brittle. Otherwise she is sure and certain with an almost ‘slow motion’ coloratura that looks effortless. Her breath control has to be faultless with a close attending camera. Her Act II aria Se il padre perdei is one of the most beautiful. It is delivered with every emotion and almost pastel shades of colour.

However for emotion Dame Josephine, as Electra, is awesome from the splendidly captured, in close-up, lascivious look at Idamante in the last scene of Act I to her delightfully loving aria Idol mio, se ritroso and her vitriol bordering insanity in D’Oreste, d’Aiace. She misses nothing. Hers is not the ‘stand and deliver’ role. She roams the stage gracefully for her farewells and then in her frustrated rage flings herself onto it alone. She commands the vocally difficult part. From the long high notes with an orchestra in full flow down to power in the lower register.

Arbace is also a difficult role – for the wrong reasons. He contributes little to the plot and by Mozartian standards has only comparatively ordinary arias. Without the opportunity to shine Alexander Oliver despatches them competently. John Fryatt as the High Priest does not deliver the vocal depth and power, of which he is capable, for this authoritative figure.

The chorus is good – indeed excellent in places – but only intermittently achieving their usual taut Glyndebourne performance. They seem uncomfortable in the opening storm scene balancing the cries of the sailors and the watchers on land. Conversely in Placido è il mar they deliver a velvet tone with a strong legato drawing out all the lyricism.

Sadly the ensembles are not the greatest. The different male emotions in the trio Pria de partir are just about apparent. The quartet Andrò ramingo e solo did not leave me overwhelmed and would not have reduced Mozart to tears, as it did on one occasion when he himself participated with friends. Indeed at one point I was not certain that John Pritchard had achieved ‘togetherness’ with his soloists.

Finally, it was only in the last scene that the reason for the receding series of arches for the staging became apparent: the inside of Neptune’s temple. Fine for that scene but the problem is that they obtrude and contrast too strongly with some splendid earlier backdrops of Turner / Claude Lorrain sea-scapes / storm and pastoral idyll.

Save for Dame Josephine’s performance this is not the most exciting DVD.

Robert McKechnie


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