Mozart: Idomeneo

'Homeward Bound' at the Barbican: Bostridge, Bell, Royal, Europa Galanta/Biondi

Barbican Hall, London, 15 May 2008 4 stars

Kate Royal

Although it's a mature Mozart masterpiece, Idomeneo is a curiously neglected work. In the 250th anniversary year, for instance, London saw only one performance of the piece, by the Chelsea Opera Group.

Yet in this score, we can see Mozart achieving the synthesis of music and drama for which his final few operas are more famous. The flow between recitative and aria is more seamless, carrying the listener actively along the development of the plot, while the greater number of ensembles, including a beautiful quartet for the four main soloists and several dramatic choruses, injects variety into the opera seria form. The orchestration of every number without exception is inventive, often involving complex independent lines for the strings, woodwind and brass instruments, as well as an effective timpani part; the third act, with its dark Gluckian colourings, is particularly notable in this respect.

Although this concert performance of the Munich version of the piece was instigated at the behest of Ian Bostridge as part of his year-long Homeward Bound residency, the main reason for the evening's success was the stunning performance by the period-instrument orchestra Europa Galante under Fabio Biondi. One might quibble about whether Biondi's decision to have the violins undivided was wise, and from where I was sitting the bass instruments did not have much impact, even though eighteenth-century orchestras were often bass-heavy; I also felt that having the harpsichord back to front caused problems for Paola Poncet, who had to strain her body round to see Biondi's beat and sometimes missed it.

But these are truly minor criticisms, because the vibrancy and crispness of the orchestral textures was what brought the performance to so high a level. Biondi's speeds were lively, bringing the piece to a close twenty minutes ahead of the advertised time, but they were only seldom too ambitious for the singers to manage. The orchestra also achieved a reasonable amount of elasticity in the tempo, though occasionally this was complicated by the fact that Biondi conducted with a violin in his hands (in spite of the fact that he didn't actually play it for much of the evening) and was therefore limited in his gestural palette. Nevertheless, one felt a strong sense of ensemble, which was enhanced by incisive and gutsy singing from the Opera Seria Chorus, one exposed moment from the male members in the first act excepted.

Ian BostridgeBearing all of this in mind, the vocal casting was curiously mixed. For me, the singer most in keeping with the rest of the performance was the young Lithuanian mezz-soprano Jurgita Adamonyte. Although not as powerful as some of the others, her poised singing, which employed vibrato expressively rather than constantly, made Idamante's numbers some of the most effective in the performance. Her contained physical stance, too, suited the elegant line of the character's music. In contrast to this, I found Emma Bell's Elettra over the top. She was clearly an audience favourite and brought considerable passion and strong projection to her performance, but for me Bell's constant vibrato and somewhat heavy delivery of her music was at odds with the work. For instance, her final number is based on the style of a baroque vengeance aria, but Bell's approach to the chromatic scale up to the high C on the word 'finirá', for instance, had too much Wagnerian hysteria about it for my taste.

As Idomeneo, Kate Royal gave perhaps the most glamorous performance of the evening. She did not quite show the full tone or floating legato in the upper range that I've heard her produce on other occasions, but the beauty of her voice was never in doubt and the fervour of her acting in the third act matched the fire of the orchestra's playing. I must say, though, that Ian Bostridge did not seem at his best at this performance. For me, Idomeneo is not a role that's particularly well suited to his talents, compared to his elegant Don Ottavio: 'Vedrommi intorno', for instance, lies a little low for him, where he can't quite produce a wealth of tone, and he struggled on the taxing run at the end of the aria ('quante volte morirá'). His physical appearance, too, didn't quite evoke the King of Crete as it might; I kept thinking back to the DVD of Pavarotti in his prime playing the part at the Met and wished for a little more of his Italianate tone and confidence from Bostridge, whose contorted body gestures threw the sound around and broke up the line too much (as well as undermining the characterisation of Idomeneo's dignity and regal stature). On the other hand, the English tenor's approach to the piece did have its individual advantages: the internal, psychological conflicts going on inside Idomeneo as father and king were brought out strongly, and as Bostridge warmed up, the emotional intensity in his voice for which he is famed came through more and more.

But it was the fine performance of Europa Galante that gave the evening its magic.

By Dominic McHugh

Read our interview with Ian Bostridge on his Homeward Bound series and forthcoming record and operatic projects here.

Previous reviews in Ian Bostridge's Homeward Bound series:
Britten's Billy Budd with the LSO
Schubert Lieder