08 June 2009

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – IDOMENEO (R. Croft, B. Fink, S. Im, A. Pendatchanska, K. Tarver, N. Rivenq, L. Tittoto; Harmonia Mundi)

Idomeneo_cover Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791) – Idomeneo, re di Creta, K. 366: R. Croft (Idomeneo), B. Fink (Idamante), S. Im (Ilia), A. Pendatchanska (Elettra), K. Tarver (Arbace), N. Rivenq (Gran Sacerdote), L. Tittoto (Voce); RIAS Kammerchor; Freiburger Barockorchester; René Jacobs [recorded during December 2008 in the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal (Germany); harmonia mundi HMC 902036.38]

With Idomeneo, first performed in Munich in January 1781, Mozart announced himself as the most significant German-speaking composer of operas in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. On the surface an example of the opera seria form that was old-fashioned even in 1781, Idomeneo is a seminal work that fuses the finest elements of the Baroque with both French innovations and the Viennese Classicism of which Mozart was the consummate master, creating a score that impresses with its sophistication and moves with its eloquence. It is clear from Mozart’s correspondence with his father than he set out to compose an opera that would be revolutionary in the sense that it would assimilate elements old and new to make full use of the remarkable orchestral and vocal resources at his disposal. Thankfully, both scholarship and public appreciation of Idomeneo have advanced to such degrees that it is no longer necessary to argue the case for Mozart’s success in achieving his goal. Idomeneo is without question among the greatest works of both its composer and its form, and furthermore is one of the greatest works of art created during the eighteenth century.

The circumstances of the composition and first performance of Idomeneo are thoroughly documented elsewhere. It is of great importance to note, however, that even the forces employed in the inaugural production of Idomeneo represented a fusion of old and new. The orchestra for which Mozart composed Idomeneo, to a commission from the Elector of Bavaria, was by many contemporary accounts the finest in Europe, an ensemble comprised of acknowledged virtuosi whose mastery of music-making extended to both the stile antico and the more harmonically progressive style of Mozart and his contemporaries. Mozart was well-acquainted with the orchestra, understanding how he could compose music of tremendous difficulty without exceeding the ensemble’s capacities. For the title role, Mozart was given the famous tenor Anton Raaff, sixty-six years old at the time of his creation of Idomeneo and a veteran of the High Baroque, having studied in Bologna with the famous castrato Bernacchi and sung in the company assembled in Madrid by Farinelli. Against Mozart’s objections, Idamante was created by the Italian castrato Vincenzo del Prato. Mozart’s intention had been to draw an obvious contrast between the ‘old’ world of Idomeneo and Arbace (created by Domenico de’ Panzacchi, at the time of Idomeneo’s premiere one of the highest-paid tenors in Europe) and the ‘new’ world of Idamante, Ilia (created by Dorothea Wendling), and Elettra (who, incidentally, is encountered in Mozart’s opera some time after having enacted the matricide famously depicted in Richard Strauss’ opera; Mozart’s Elettra was created by Elisabeth Wendling, sister-in-law to the first Ilia). Mozart was bitterly disappointed by the poor acting skills of Raaff and del Prato, as well as their pallid efforts at enlivening recitatives. Feeling that this undermined many of his intended dramatic effects, Mozart made many changes to the score during the rehearsals prior to the first performance.

To a great extent, René Jacobs returns in this recording to Mozart’s first thoughts, which he justifies in his extensive liner notes as an homage to the unjustly criticized libretto by Gianbattista Varesco, chaplain of the Salzburg court chapel. The merits of Varesco’s work notwithstanding, there is great musical value in hearing Mozart’s unedited intentions for the first production of Idomeneo, not least in the context of a studio recording. Mr. Jacobs enjoys in this undertaking a cast among whom there is not a single weak link, giving him an advantage in coming to Idomeneo that even Mozart did not enjoy.

Mr. Jacobs has of course already presided over acclaimed and occasionally controversial recordings of Mozart’s da Ponte operas and La Clemenza di Tito, and the same Baroque-rooted intelligence and performance practices that shaped those recordings are brought to Idomeneo, in which it could be argued that a Baroque-leaning approach is considerably more apt. Conducting the splendid Freiburger Barockorchester, Mr. Jacobs achieves orchestral balances that seem inherently right for the music and even in some instances challenge the ideal proportions achieved in the Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Karl Böhm (who, of course, conducted modern instruments). Woodwind and brass textures are especially luminous, revealing details of orchestration obscured in other performances and highlighting with great intelligence the links with Gluck’s ‘reform’ operas. The orchestral playing throughout is of the highest quality, and Mr. Jacobs, even allowing for a few idiosyncrasies along the way (such as a fortepiano continuo, defensible from an academic perspective and rarely obtrusive, though Mozart surely employed harpsichord continuo), paces the performance with insight and obviously genuine affection, granting space in which the music can develop unhurriedly and the superb playing of the orchestra can make maximum effect.

As has not often been the case in the history of Idomeneo on records, secondary roles are cast from strength. Singing Arbace (which, contrary to casting traditions, is emphatically a tenor role, as is proved here), American tenor Kenneth Tarver brings the same security, virtuosity, and tonal beauty he brings to bel canto roles, singing Arbace’s ‘old-fashioned’ divisions with great panache. Judging from the music Mozart composed for Arbace and the stature of the singer who first performed the role, Arbace requires a singer who could, should fate dictate, be called upon to sing the title role. Mr. Tarver is just such a singer, following his Don Ottavio in Mr. Jacobs’ Don Giovanni with a performance of equal polish and grandeur. Should Jacobs ever record Die Entführung aus dem Serail, what a magnificent Belmonte Mr. Tarver could be. As the Gran Sacerdote, French baritone Nicolas Rivenq brings his strong voice, a familiar presence in Baroque music who also figured prominently in Jean-Claude Malgoire’s traversal of the da Ponte operas. In the brief contributions of the Gran Sacerdote, Mr. Rivenq sings with due gravity and attention to style. Italian bass Luca Tittoto brings a less imposing instrument to his duties as the Voice (from the depths, as it were) but is likewise both stylish and effective.

Wonderfully evocative and seemingly tasting every spicy note of Elettra’s fiery vengeance music, Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska brings to her performance a no-holds-barred technique that encompasses both the lyrical and the dramatic aspects of Elettra’s music. Elettra is possibly the opera’s most interesting and fully human character, a woman with a past who not only loves but deludes herself with visions of a beautifully romantic, requited passion. Elettra’s tragedy in Idomeneo is that these delusions are all too painfully put to an end when Idamante and Ilia are united. This disappointment sends Elettra into an unhinged fury, her exit aria a stuttering expression of exploding jealousy and rage. Even there, it is possible to sense a vulnerable core in this woman, pursued by the Furies, for whom normalcy and repose are impossible. Ms. Pendatchanska expresses this psychological depth even as she launches vocal pyrotechnics, singing with the poise of Julia Varady (for Böhm) and the abandon of Pauline Tinsley (on Sir Colin Davis’ first recording of the opera): an extraordinary performance from an engaging and always interesting artist.

South Korean soprano Sunhae Im proves, as she has in other assignments in Mr. Jacobs’ recordings, that she possesses a voice of ideal proportions for Mozart’s mature operas, the tone completely even throughout the range and the registers impeccably equalized. As Ilia, on whom Mozart lavished music of exquisite beauty, Ms. Im sings with distinction that surpasses even her own high standards. Ms. Im immediately convinces the listener not only of Ilia’s profound sorrow but also of her royal lineage, and ultimately of the hope and joy she finds in her love for Idamante. In recitative, aria, and ensemble, Ms. Im sings with elegance recalling the greatest Mozart singers of the past. The voice, though not substantial, is of great quality, and Ms. Im applies that voice to a winningly stylish performance that fully justifies Ilia’s place at the center of the drama.

American tenor Richard Croft is an accomplished artist with wide-ranging credentials, acclaimed in Europe for his wonderfully vivid performances of Händel roles and also lauded for his 2008 MET performances as Gandhi in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha. Vocally, Idomeneo is undoubtedly more closely related to Händel’s tenor roles than to Glass’ Gandhi, but Mr. Croft brings to Idomeneo the same inner conviction that Gandhi requires. Idomeneo is a conflicted man, a war hero who in a moment of weakness strikes a bargain with Neptune for his own delivery from harm. The god’s sentence is the imposition of human sacrifice, made crueler (and more overtly operatic) when it becomes obvious that the victim of that sacrifice must be Idomeneo’s son. There are undeniable parallels with the Biblical account of Abraham, but Idomeneo is a considerably more flawed man than the tested but unflappably faithful Patriarch. Mr. Croft, largely free of vocal defects, is able to concentrate on bringing out Idomeneo’s foibles by varying his tone throughout the performance to suggest the inconsistent emotions that inspire Idomeneo’s private and public actions. The great aria ‘Fuor del mar’ is performed here in its first, more florid version, and Mr. Croft delivers the piece with no little swagger. Nevertheless, here and elsewhere a slightly larger, more naturally imposing sound would be welcome. It is impossible to know how Anton Raaff’s voice sounded, especially in his sixty-sixth year, but it is also impossible to imagine that Mozart would not be pleased with the involvement and emotional directness Mr. Croft brings to his performance. Commanding as his arias are, Mr. Croft is at his best in ensembles, in which he displays a rare gift for precisely executing his own vocal lines while also listening interestedly and vitally to his colleagues. This is a performance that differs fundamentally from other recorded Idomeneos (by artists as diverse as Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Philip Langridge, and Wieslaw Ochman) but, taken as a whole, is one of the most musically and spiritually fulfilling performances on records.

As in many other of his recorded performances, Jacobs’ trump card is the Idamante of Argentine mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, a singer who seems incapable of recording a performance that is short of fantastic. Ms. Fink’s is one of those voices that defies characterization: dark without being heavy, convincingly masculine when required without being raspy, and above all consistently beautiful. As is well known, Mozart later adapted the role of Idamante for tenor for a Viennese performance, and it was in this adaptation that the opera was reintroduced to audiences during the twentieth century, an effort in part at distancing Idamante from his origins as a castrato role. Increasingly, productions have sought to return to Mozart’s original scoring by casting a female singer as Idamante, though almost always feeling the need to justify this decision with tedious academic exposition. As is almost always the case in opera, great singing is its own justification, and no doubt can remain about the perceptiveness of either Mozart’s or Mr. Jacobs’ decision to cast a high voice as Idamante after Ms. Fink’s performance is heard. Singing with tone both regal and movingly restrained, Ms. Fink brings to Idamante great depth of feeling, touching every emotional thread in the role without resorting to histrionics. Ms. Fink displays great tenderness in her scenes with Ilia and Idomeneo: she also rejects Elettra without hectoring and is all the more moving for it. Every technical requirement of the role is met with both voice and grace to spare, and every note seems to emanate from an absorbing and detailed but never lugubrious understanding of the role. Ms. Fink’s Sesto was the reliable, resplendent foundation upon which Mr. Jacobs built his Clemenza di Tito, and Ms. Fink’s Idamante is similarly the psychological epicenter of this Idomeneo. In addition to being gorgeously and idiomatically sung, Ms. Fink’s Idamante is perhaps the finest performance among all of Mr. Jacobs’ Mozart recordings and is, even considered alongside some legendary predecessors, a truly classic example of Mozart singing.

To state that this Idomeneo seems in cumulative analysis greater than the sum of its parts is to unfairly suggest that there are deficiencies among those parts. Mr. Jacobs conducts a performance in which orchestra, chorus, and soloists share a common goal of bringing life and passion to the music before them, and this ensemble investment of tonal and emotional resources pays impressively rich dividends. Every singer is equal to the task Mozart has devised, and in Bernarda Fink the performance boasts an Idamante of wondrous beauty and finesse. It is possible even when the individual components are of dazzling attractiveness that the whole can prove disjointed and ugly. The puzzle is sorted out here, though, and the lovely pieces are assembled into a brilliant Idomeneo.