[Full Disclosure: Naxos has provided me with a promotional copy of this recording]
First things first: I’d like to direct your attention to the cover art for this recording. That is a sea monster for the ages, the sea monster of my B-movie dreams. Right down to its strangely limp tentacled appendages and its dripping, jagged-toothed maw.
Here is where I reveal my inadequacy as a lover of Mozart opera: I am largely unfamiliar with Idomeneo. I remember a televised production from perhaps five years ago that featured Japan-inspired sets and costumes, but otherwise this is my first encounter with this opera, one of Mozart’s earliest successes. Since the COC’s production opens May 9th, I thought I’d use this album discussion as an opportunity to familiarize myself with it. I made liberal use of The COC’s Listening Guide to quickly familiarize myself with the key arias and ensembles.
Listening to this recording without following along with the libretto, it’s immediately identifiable as a Mozart opera. Though the conventions of Opera Seria are firmly in place and the musical gestures are rather more grandiose than in his celebrated comedies, the lightness, agility, and fineness of detail I associate with Mozart’s music is very much in evidence. I always especially enjoy Mozart’s ensemble pieces, and Pria di Partir, O Dio! is an outstanding example.
Usually what winds up endearing me the most to a given Mozart opera isn’t the big set-piece arias, but rather the small moments, maybe lasting only four bars or so, that command my attention, turn my head, and then disappear as quickly as they arose. Idomeneo is full of them – just now the interesting chord changes near the end of Popoli, A Voi, and when I first started listening, the lovely descending scales in Ilia’s first aria, Padre, germani, addio!
Pavarotti’s presence as Idamante makes this recording of particular interest – though it also adds to the recording’s idiosyncrasies. This performance captures him at the very beginning of his career, when (as the liner notes tell us) he still hadn’t decided if a career as a football player would suit him better than one as an opera singer. The recording itself is an effective argument for his future stardom, documenting the beautiful blooming voice that was to bring him the highest name recognition of any opera singer since Caruso. Of course, Pavarotti isn’t a singer especially at home in the Mozartean repertoire, and his very Italianate Idamante has distinctly Nemorino-ish overtones. In addition, the role was originally written for a castrato, with tenor-fication coming later (I understand the COC will use a mezzo-soprano). There is equally beautiful singing from the renowned Gundula Janowitz as Ilia. Richard Lewis as Idomeneo, however, often sounds rough and unsteady, particularly in the more florid passages.
Though a live performance, the recording is blessedly free of distracting stage and audience noise, and the sound quality is excellent for a live recording from the period. Even the applause has mostly been excised, from what I can tell. The liner notes are informative, with many interesting photographs of the production included. There is a full libretto with English, French, and German translations. While perhaps too quirky to be a definitive recording for newcomers to Idomeneo, I very much enjoyed getting to know these other facets of Mozart’s music.
The recording is available for purchase from www.glyndebourne.com.