Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Idomeneo (1781)
Kurt Streit (tenor) – Idomeneo; Angeles Blancas Gulin (soprano) – Ilia; Iano Tamar (soprano) – Elettra; Sonia Ganassi (mezzo-soprano) – Idamante; Jörg Schneider (tenor) – Arbace; Dario Magnabosco (tenor) – Il Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno; Deyan Vatchkov (bass) – La voce dell’Oracolo
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Carlo Theatre, Naples/Marco Guidarini
rec. live, Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy, May 2004
The Italian libretto can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660250.htm
NAXOS 8.660250-52 [3 CDs: 55:12 + 39:44 + 64:55]

With Idomeneo Mozart created his first great opera. It stands out from the rest of his operatic production as a solitaire in more than one respect. On the surface it is an opera seria, which was a genre that in Mozart’s time was beginning to lose its appeal. But it’s not a slavish copy of an established structure; it’s rather brave and innovative and filled with drama of a kind that not even Mozart himself was able to create later in life. Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così are comedies – more or less – and Entführung and Zauberflöte are Singspiele so the only direct competitor is La clemenza di Tito and, although a musically wonderful opera, it is more retrospective.

Idomeneo is outstanding in its dramatic use of the chorus – here Gluck is the godfather – and also the first great example of what was to be Mozart’s hallmark as an opera composer: the ensembles. I am talking about the quartet in act III. To Mozart this was not just a blueprint of what was to be during the next few years. He regarded Idomeneo as his favourite opera and it is more daring, more modern than his later masterpieces, pointing forward to the 19th century.

Recordings of Idomeneo are not rarities and when making a choice one has to decide whether one wants a ‘traditional’ version with a modern orchestra, or an ‘historical’ one with period instruments and lower pitch. In the second category John Eliot Gardiner’s DG recording from 1990 and René Jacobs’ Harmonia Mundi from 2009 are both highly interesting and generally well sung. In the first category there are loads of recordings starting out with a Vox set, released in 1950 and with many of the great opera singers of the last sixty years represented. Thus both Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti have essayed the title role.

In my collection I have an EMI recording from the early 1970s, conducted by the noted Mozartean Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt with Nicolai Gedda in the title role, Peter Schreier as Arbace, Anneliese Rothenberger as Ilia and Edda Moser as Elettra. Idamante is here sung by the tenor Adolf Dallapozza. Gedda was a great Mozart singer, as can be heard on several sets: Krips’ Entführung, Klemperer’s Don Giovanni and Zauberflöte to mention three but on this Idomeneo he is uncharacteristically strained. Rothenberger is perhaps best known as a very good operetta soprano but she also sang several Mozart roles and her Ilia is sensitively performed. Edda Moser has both the technique and the power for Elettra’s role, and Peter Schreier’s credentials as a Mozart singer are well known: not the most ingratiating of tenor voices but singing with deep insight. A Philips recording from 1991 conducted by Colin Davis has now become my favourite, sporting Francisco Araiza in the title role, Uwe Heilmann as Arbace, Barbara Hendricks as Ilia, Roberta Alexander a very good Elettra and Susanne Mentzer as a mezzo-Idamante. I must proclaim, however, that I have not heard all the other versions.

The present issue, recorded six years ago at San Carlo in Naples before an audience that wasn’t always the most discreet and further adorned with some substantial helpings of stage noises, has some advantages but there are also drawbacks.

Marco Guidarini generally chooses sensible tempos and he is excellent in the choruses, drawing committed singing from his choristers. Qual nuovo terrore in act II, O voto tremendo in act III and the short final chorus are among the best things in this recording. The orchestral playing is also up to scratch, occasional patches of shaky ensemble notwithstanding, but that happens in almost every live performance. The recorded sound is good.

The singers are a mixed bag. Kurt Streit in the title role has been a leading Mozart tenor around the world for almost 25 years and he is booked several years ahead but his busy schedule – including many roles besides his Mozart signatures – has no doubt taken its toll. As reproduced here the tone, even six years ago, is worn and the mellifluousness has been replaced by a certain hardness and also a widened vibrato. That he is an expressive and dramatic singer is never in doubt. Fuor del mar, his big aria in act II, is sung with appropriate temperament and in the last resort I have to admit that his reading of the role is very convincing, in spite of the deficiencies. Jörg Schneider, who sings Arbace, delivers full-throated singing but very little of nuance and interpretative insight.

The Idamante, Sonia Ganassi, instantly became a great favourite when Naxos in 1992 issued Il barbiere di Siviglia, a recording that has been hailed by an almost unanimous body of reviewers. Her Rosina may not be quite in the Berganza class but not far behind. Also for her the years haven’t passed unnoticed and here she sings with a widened vibrato. As an interpreter she is, like Streit, deeply satisfying.

Angeles Blancas Gulin, who sings Ilia, has a beautiful voice but even she has a somewhat annoying vibrato and the tone is rather fluttery. Stylistically she is good and she sings the best-known aria in this opera, Zeffiretti. lusinghieri in act III neatly but occasionally with hesitant intonation.

Quite the best singing on this set comes from Georgian soprano Iano Tamar. Elettra is one of the most formidable soprano roles in all Mozart, surpassing even Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. The biography in the booklet reveals that she also sings Lady Macbeth and Norma, which says something about her voice type. And it is a grand dramatic voice. Listen to Tutte nel cor in act I (CD 1 tr. 9) and even more impressive is her Idol mio in act II (CD 2, tr. 6). Not only has she got all the power needed but it is also a well focused voice and it has that thrill that makes the hair stand on end when she engages the turbo. In the third act she again impresses in D’Oreste, d’Ajace (CD 3, tr. 18). This is a singer I long to hear more of.

As a total experience this Idomeneo is not competitive, considering how many other versions that are available. Streit and Ganassi give deeply committed performances, Gulin has her moments but the really great singing comes from Tamar. Readers wanting a cheap set can still find a lot to enjoy and the recording gives a fairly good picture of the strength of this opera, which still hasn’t been quite established as a Masterpiece in the Mozart canon.

Göran Forsling

As a total experience this Idomeneo is not competitive but readers wanting a cheap set can still find much to enjoy.