As an opera seria on a Greek subject, there's a certain unfortunate irony in the fact that a great deal of good work on René Jacobs's new Idomeneo is largely undone by a kind of musical hubris. As several critics have noted – with varying degrees of tolerance – the lively and witty continuo playing that brought so much of the recitative to life in Jacobs' earlier Mozart recordings, and was justly praised for doing so, here teeters over into a parody of itself.
It's a problem exacerbated by Jacobs' respectfully opening up many of the opera's usual cuts, restoring a great deal more recitative than we often hear. He makes claims for the literary quality of Giambattista Varesco's oft-maligned libretto in a booklet essay but then condones Sebastian Wienand's arch over-ornamentation of almost everything. Focus, then, is taken away from the text and the singers' own attempts at imbuing proceedings with drama are often upstaged and, by the end, one has the feeling that they simply leave it to Wienand, who comments on the action in a way that often seems more befitting to a pianist accompanying silent cinema. So long is the fortepiano's introduction at the start of Act Two one might be forgiven for thinking that there'd been a mix up at the packing plant.
With that substantial caveat out of the way, there's still a great deal to enjoy from this release. Granted Jacobs' casts have become less starry as his series has continued – this was definitely the case after the enforced withdrawal of Simon Keenlyside from his Don Giovanni – and although none of the singing is ever less than highly refined and competent, the powerful drama conjured up by Bernada Fink as Idamante and Alexandrina Pendatschanska as Elletra stand out.
Leading the cast, Richard Croft is not the most authoritative sounding figure, choosing to emphasise the character's sensitivity in much of his singing. His attempts to portray terror at 'qual spavento' in his first act aria fail to convince, but he creates an Idomeneo of rare thoughtfulness who is moving in his final scenes; his Act Three cavatina is gloriously done, helped by beautiful accompaniment from the orchestra. The fact that Kenneth Tarver, as Idomeneo's confident Arbace, has a rather similar voice to his king might trouble some, but Tarver's singing is highly seductive, if not always dramatically engaging as it might be.
Bernada Fink sounds a little below her usual outstanding best, vocally speaking, with the voice itself sounding somewhat congested, but her Idamente is an imposing creation, capturing the impetuosity and passion of youth, as well as the character's ambitions in politics and love. Sunhae Im is a sweet-sounding if slightly underwhelming Ilia, especially beside the impassioned and vocally imposing Elletra of Alexandrina Pendatschanska.
Consistently beyond reproach is the playing of the marvellous Freiburger Barockorchester, and whatever one's view on Jacobs' way with the recitatives, there are few conductors who manage to bring out all the teeming details of an aria's accompaniment as can Jacobs. Listen, for example, to the drama he conjures up at the beginning at Elletra's 'Tutte nel cor vi sento', leading into the first chorus, 'Pietà, numi, pietà'. The urgency of the second act's final moments, too, is overwhelming where he is again helped by the pinpoint accuracy and vocal incisiveness of the RIAS Kammerchor, who are outstanding throughout.
At its start, Jacobs' Mozart looked set to sweep away all competition, and his recordings of Figaro and La clemenza di Tito in particular were revelatory. Few will deny that the series has lost its way slightly, with the continuo question of proving increasingly divisive. John Eliot Gardiner's now classic Idomeneo probably remains the first choice but there's so much vivid playing and conducting in this release to make it worth seeking out. Listeners will have to make up their own minds about what goes on between the set numbers.
Harmonia Mundi's presentation, incidentally, is characteristically lavish and the release is accompanied by a making-of DVD.
By Hugo Shirley
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