Mozart’s Idomeneo with Sir Roger Norrington and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival

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Sir Roger Norrington

Sir Roger Norrington

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Idomeneo, rè di Creta, dramma per musica K. 366
Libretto by G. B. Varesco, after A. Danchet’s Idomenée

Idomeneo –  Kurt Streit
Idamante – Joyce DiDonato
Ilia – Rosemary Joshua
Elettra – Emma Bell
Arbace – Rainer Trost
Sacerdote – Keith Lewis
Voce di Nettuno – Jan Martiník

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington, Conductor

Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus
Gregory Batsleer, Chorus Master

Certainly one of the happiest events in the expansion of the classical repertoire in the later twentieth century has been the discovery of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo, rè di Creta. Often I think it may be my favorite…until I really start thinking seriously about Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but I can say that I feel a special passion for Idomeneo. When one reads about the conductors who have brought it into its still admittedly somewhat intermittent place in the repertory of major opera houses — first among whom is Sir Colin Davis — their passion for the work is always in the foreground. The opera itself is passionate. Mozart clearly responded strongly to the libretto, and this passion is infectious. As Julian Rushton made clear in his excellent program notes for the Festival program, Mozart took up the aging genre of opera seria in an original, personal way, which owed much to Gluck’s reforms in France. In this he found his own balance between drama and lyrical expression, favoring recitative rather aggressively over arias, and the result is gripping, as much in the rather heavily cut stage versions current today as in the fuller versions, of which Sir Charles Mackerras’ was by far the most complete, including most of the arias, some of which were cut by Mozart himself, and the ballet music at the end. Sir Roger Norrington’s staged performance at Salzburg was around forty-five minutes shorter. As unfortunate as it is to be deprived of a final statement by Sir Charles of a work he loved with special passion, Sir Roger shares this passion in his own way, and he performed Sir Charles’ long version to boot. Hence this was a great posthumous meeting of the minds, and Idomeneo was most splendidly served.

I’d hate to do without the wonderful truncated performances which have been performed over the years and committed to disc, not least Karl Böhm’s recording based on a Salzburg production and Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh performance, which is now available on an excellent Decca DVD; but one classical principle Mozart retained, even as he was struggling with an overlong third act in its first production, was symmetry. When the last act is severely cut, one loses the symmetrical balance in which the overall structure of the opera reflects its da capo arias. For this reason and others, Sir Charles’ inclusiveness is especially to be valued, giving a sort of “ideal” version, which nobody ever heard  during Mozart’s lifetime. However, in retrospect, it is valid, just as we accept hearing both of Don Ottavio’s arias in Don Giovanni, even through each was written for a different performance, and Mozart never thought of both being sung in a single performance. The composer’s working process, by the way, is especially well documented in his letters, and it is clear that he stressed theatrical effectiveness above all and was prepared to cut drastically to achieve a success on stage. Also, he was proud of the work, and intended to revive it in Vienna with some important changes, e.g. Idamante would be recast as a tenor, and Idomeneo as a bass. Should we regard Idomeneo, therefore, as a work-in-progress, to be manipulated ad libitum, or should we just rejoice in what we have, as much of it as possible? The magnificent reading in Usher Hall made a powerful case for the latter.

Since this was most carefully and deliberately worked up as a concert performance, it is interesting to note that Mozart’Mozart’s intended Vienna revival of Idomeneo in 1786 would most likely have been a concert performance, one of the few from the eighteenth century we know about. The Festival performance had all the musical virtues of opera in concert: immaculate ensemble with chorus and soloists more or less in the same location in the acoustical space, hence consistent balances, and the dramatic intensity of experienced opera singers, making the most of the expressive possibilities available to them.

Both Kurt Streit, the magnificent Idomeneo, and Joyce di Donato as Idamante took hold of their roles in the most intensely emotive ways, but their methods were different. Streit, who has a powerful, even charismatic presence on stage in his very well-cut tails, expressed this intensity through finely honed rhetoric and gesture. He has clearly studied the performance style of the period, and he is a master at making it alive for a modern audience. He also sang with minimal vibrato, adding it only when he thought it necessary to blend with colleagues. He was the only singer to attempt this. His phrasing was both expressive and elegant, and his manly, darkish tenor was splendid to hear. His high notes remained tonally consistent with his rich middle and lower register: his upper range never became white or falsettoish. Kurt Streit is indeed a great Idomeneo and a great tenor, tout court, reminiscent of Nicolai Gedda, who sang the role under Schmidt-Isserstedt years ago, and just as good.

Joyce di Donato was also superb. Her Idamante was emotive and beautifully sung, with full vibrato in a modern style. In her preparation she must have taken special pains to enter into her heroical trouser role. At points I thought the swagger she brought to a young prince in a highly ambiguous situation a bit excessive. (Vivica Genaux relishes this challenge in a less conventional way and is rather more convincing in conveying the knightly ethos.) Her analysis of her part lacked the detail and reality of Streit’s, but her singing was indeed magnificent.

All the others sang on a similarly high level and had interesting and valuable insights into their parts. Ilia, for example, is important in advancing the plot, and Rosemary Joshua gave her the substance she needed between the two very strong singers in the lead roles. Emma Bell sang Elettra to perfection and is especially to be commended for her avoidance of over-playing the part: the fireworks don’t really start until Elettra’s final outburst, and Bell understood that. I found Rainer Trost’s Arbace a trifle bland, however. The great quartet was as movingly realized as I have ever heard.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, carried off their important role in this opera to perfection. Chorus Master Gregory Batsleer brought them into the passing emotions of the drama and produced a splendid sound in the lovely Usher Hall acoustics. It is worth noting that they were fairly small in number and positioned behind the orchestra, but nowhere near the back of the stage, which actually contains audience seats. For that reason there was no constriction in the higner registers.

Finally the musicality and athletic precision of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra had an added bloom and warmth in Usher Hall, and Norrington’s balances were impeccable, producing a full sound in which the violins, somewhat darkish, could play against leathery violas and double basses, the rich celli, and all the winds. The bite of the natural trumpets and horns, and the colorful woodwinds, especially prominent in this version of the score, was a delight.

Sir Roger was seated on a stool throughout the evening, but it didn’t compromise the energy of this playing, or his customary manner of reaching out to the individual sections. I especially admired the almost Klemperer-like solidity of Sir Roger’s beat and his sense of structure. He favored rather broad tempi, with the exception of the chorus’ “Corriamo, corriamo, che mostro spietato,” which was lightning fast, and this allowed the singers and the orchestra to delve into the beauties of Mozart’s score without compromise. The pace, howver, was always taut, and his appreciation of the drama and contrasts in Mozart’s creation was admirable. One would only expect that Sir Roger’s interpretation of Idomeneo would stand up well aside Mackerras’, but this went far beyond that. His performance had entirely its own character, and it was also a worthy tribute to Sir Charles, who would only have wanted a friend and peer to do things in his own way, as he always did himself. Blessings on them both.

The performance will be broadcast on BBC3 on Saturday September 18, at 6 pm,  GMT.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Thanks for this report on what was clearly a major Mozartian event! I’ve never heard the work live, though I still remember vividly my repeated encounters with Colin Davis’s first recording of the work.

    Your various descriptive details–the advantages of “opera in concert,” the wonderfully “leathery” violas–help me feel as if I was there myself….

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