Rene Jacobs has been revolutionizing the way we perform Mozart's comic operas since his release of Cosi Fan Tutte almost a decade ago. This recording of Mozart's best known opera seria, Idomeneo: King of Crete, is the fifth and latest of Jacobs's readings of Mozart's mature operas. His Figaro and Cosi were vivacious and elegant, his Titus breathed new life into the oft-neglected piece, his Giovanni was extraordinary, but his Idomeneo combines what Jacobs knows best about opera seria and about Mozart. After all, Jacobs has always been a champion of Baroque opera seria from Monteverdi, to Scarlatti, to Haendel. In this Classical opera seria, we find Jacobs completely in his element. I do not hyperbolize when I say this is perhaps his best Mozart recording to date.
I must say that Idomeneo is a hard opera to get "right." Having owned and listened to several, there has always been something missing from each. It is unlike any other Mozart opera, not only in that it is so serious, but in that it is relatively long, Mozart was working with a librettist with whom he disagreed artistically (he lacked the artistic compatibility he later had with Da Ponte), and with singers whose abilities he disparaged. Idomeneo is very experimental in structure; it's not an opera buffa or singspiel like his other, more popular mature operas- but its style draws heavily on the reforms of Glueck. He planned to rewrite the opera years later for Vienna, but the plans never came to fruition. Mozart made numerous cuts and additions on subsequent performances. Given these circumstances and limitations, one might think of Idomeneo as sub-par, and I've found that sadly each recording prior to this one has reflected this. There have been some who have come close, namely the one by Mackerras with the immortal Lorraine Hunt Liberson.
But Jacobs has found that missing element. Jacobs allows for the ensemble, especially the continuo group, to comment on the action through dynamics, changes in tempi, and most impressively, improvisation, to give us an exciting yet authentic reading of 18th century practice. There is never a dull moment in his Mozart interpretations (his recordings of the Prague and Jupiter Symphonies included). Idomeneo is indeed a serious opera, but he remembers that opera was and is entertainment. Some listeners in the past may have been bothered by Jacob's choices in tempo. Quick tempi are definitely present here, but they are not unbearable- rather one gets the impression that Jacobs knows how to keep the action moving forward, which is beneficial to such a long opera.
Alexandrina Pendatchanska impressed me greatly when I first heard her as Vitellia. I thought she'd make a great Donna Elvira, and she lived up to my expectations. Elettra is a psychologically similar character to the previous two: she is vengeful but capable of tenderness. It must be a difficult role for a soprano to sing, I imagine, but she is in her element here. I have never heard a more genuinely bloodthirsty Elettra, and in my view, she steals the show. Her tasteful yet gutsy interpretations remind me very much of a Cecilia Bartoli. Elettra is a seriously demanding role, like Vitellia, requiring exceptional range and a strong lower register. Pendatchanska is the ideal woman for the job.
The rest of the cast is excellent. Idamante and Idomeneo are presented as both aristocratic and tragic. It is, after all, Greek tragedy. Croft knows that his role requires acrobatic virtuosity, yet he also knows that this is opera- it is drama, acting, theater. Not only do we get a talented vocal acrobrat, but one who is in tune with his role as actor.
Sunhae Im's Ilia sounds young and light, but she is by no means anemic-sounding like many soubrette sopranos who sing the role. I would recommend her recording of Die Schopfung under Spering as well as her Zerlina, also under Jacobs. I find myself becoming a devoted fan of both her and Ms Pendatchanska after more hearings and I do hope Rene Jacobs continues to employ both voices in his future recording endeavors.
The chorus must also function as a memorable character in itself. It must not be overlooked. It is not merely the extra embellishment as in the opera buffa like Cosi and Figaro. Anyone versed in Greek tragedy will know the importance of the chorus. Mozart and his librettist made full use of the chorus, and Jacobs does as well. This is one area where many recordings fall short of expectations. My favorite moment in the entire opera is the finale of Act II, in which there are continuous movements alternating between chorus and soloists, and Jacobs blends the forces perfectly here.
This is, at last, the Idomeneo I can listen to all the way through. Such a long, serious piece should be performed with the vitality that only Jacobs can provide. I am hoping for a Die Zauberflote soon, and await his upcoming release of Haydn's Die Schopfung with Johannes Weisser (the same young man who sang the title role in Jacobs's acclaimed Don Giovanni recording).