Record Guide: Mozart’s Idomeneo

Idomeneo was Mozart’s first major operatic triumph. It was premiered in Munich in 1781 and was an immediate success. At the time, Idomeneo was groundbreaking and modern for opera audiences, especially because of the importance of the chorus and the presence of many long, uninterrupted passages of music.

Before delving into the recordings, it’s important to note that Mozart made a revision of the opera for Vienna in 1786, in which two of the most significant changes were the change of Idamante’s role from a soprano castrato to a tenor, and the removal of the coloratura parts of Idomeneo’s bravura aria ‘Fuor del mar’, in order to please the tenor who sang the role. It is now known that Mozart preferred the opera without these two changes.

First three major studio recordings

The recordings of Sir John Pritchard (EMI, 1956), Sir Colin Davis (Philips, 1968) and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (EMI, 1971) were important in starting the recording history of the opera. While all three are respectable recordings, especially the Davis one for his fantastic conducting, they ultimately fall short of later recordings as they make many cuts (except Schmidt-Isserstedt) and opt for Mozart’s less preferred casting of a tenor for the role of Idamante. Some singers who stand out are Léopold Simoneau’s Idamante in the Pritchard version, George Shirley’s Idomeneo in the Colin Davis interpretation and Peter Schreier’s Arbace (the best in the discography) in the Schmidt-Isserstedt recording.

Good live options

Ferenc Fricsay was one of the conductors who understood Mozart’s operas best. In this live recording from the 1961 Salzburg Festival (Deutsche Grammophon), his direction is one to look out for. The female cast, with Pilar Lorengar as Ilia and Elizabeth Grümmer as Elettra, is in a class of its own. The downside, apart from the sound quality expected from a live recording of the period, is the number of cuts.

In a 1971 radio broadcast (Opera D’Oro), Sir Colin Davis conducts the work better and more vividly than in his previous studio attempt. Nicolai Gedda gives a fantastic Idomeneo, a marked improvement on his studio recording with Schmidt-Isserstedt. Finally we have a female voice for Idamante, and Jessye Norman’s beautifully expressive singing is up to the task. Heather Harper’s Ilia, another highlight of the performance, is delightful and heartfelt. The drawback, as usual, is the multiple cuts.

Two curiosities

A very young Luciano Pavarotti’s ravishing portrayal of Idamante brings us to this 1964 live recording (Nota Blu), conducted prosaically by Sir John Pritchard. Look out for Gundula Janowitz’s wonderful portrayal of Ilia, but otherwise there’s little else to note about this performance.

In honour of the 150th anniversary of Idomeneo, Richard Strauss was commissioned to rework Mozart’s score, resulting in a German version of the opera in which about a third of the music was reworked. Mozart and Strauss aficionados alike will find value in this live rendition from the 2006 Salzburg Festival (Orfeo), conducted by the ever-reliable Fabio Luisi. Look out for Robert Gambill’s strong and heroic portrayal of the title role.

Two of the “Three Tenors” try Mozart

It’s important to mention the attempts by Luciano Pavarotti (with Sir John Pritchard on Decca, 1983) and Plácido Domingo (with James Levine on Deutsche Grammophon, 1994) to explore Mozart. While there are some interesting things to be found here, both ultimately falter in comparison to more experienced Mozart tenors. Their reliance on the simplified Vienna version of ‘Fuor del mar’ contributes to this, but it’s not the only factor. The Levine version is preferable, as his conducting is very good, and as for the cast, Cecilia Bartoli’s performance as Idamante is refreshing and Carol Vaness’s Elettra almost unsurpassed. In Pritchard’s interpretation (once again conducted in a worldly manner), Agnes Baltsa’s portrayal of Idamante shines.

Then there’s Böhm…

Karl Böhm’s rendition of Idomeneo (Deutsche Grammophon, 1977) falls a little short. Not only are there cuts, but Wiesław Ochman’s lacklustre portrayal of the title character, opting for the simplified Viennese version of ‘Fuor del mar’, further diminishes the quality of the recording. Böhm’s direction is generally good, but occasionally marred by moments of lethargy. The rest of the cast is excellent; Peter Schreier is arguably the best Idamante on record, Edith Mathis gives a convincing performance as Ilia, and Júlia Várady’s Elettra is one of the very best (along with Elizabeth Grümmer and Carol Vaness), so this is still a commendable recording. It’s ideal for those who prefer a tenor interpretation of Idamante.

Excellent recommendations for period instruments

Idomeneo works very well with period instruments, as these two great recordings show.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s live interpretation is distinguished by his skill as a Mozart conductor (Archiv, 1990). His formidable cast is led by the best female Idamante in the discography, Anne Sofie von Otter, and the powerful Idomeneo of Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Sylvia McNair’s Ilia is sweet but at times plain, and Hillevi Martinpelto as Elettra, while not outstanding, doesn’t put a foot wrong.

René Jacobs’ artistic vision and creativity result in a remarkable recording, with perhaps the best sound quality in the discography (Harmonia Mundi, 2008). While not at the level of the Gardiner cast, the singers in this recording, aided by the conductor, give some very interesting performances, such as Richard Croft’s reflective Idomeneo or Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s neurotic Elettra, but otherwise the selling point of this registration is the musical direction.

Outstanding recordings

Sir Colin Davis’ 1991 performance (Philips) stands out as his finest version of Idomeneo. After numerous previous attempts, it’s clear that his grasp of the work is impeccable. The recording boasts perhaps the best Idomeneo on record, Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza, and a heavenly Ilia in Barbara Hendricks. Roberta Alexander manages to master all the nuances of Elettra, and Suzanne Mentzer’s Idamante is correct, but no more. Uwe Heilmann easily passes the test as Arbace.

Sir Charles Mackerras’ recording (EMI, 2001) offers a very strong performance. He manages to combine a period instrument approach with modern instruments, which suits the opera perfectly. This, together with a very impressive understanding of the work, makes a stunning recording. Ian Bostridge’s lied-like approach to the role of Idomeneo works surprisingly well, while Barbara Frittoli’s fiery Elettra is definitely a highlight. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Idamante, Lisa Milne as Elettra and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (a formidable Idomeneo in his earlier days) as Arbace all contribute effectively to the ensemble without achieving individual greatness.

First recommendation

My first choice for Idomeneo is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1980 recording (Teldec). Like Mackerras, he manages to combine a period instrument approach with modern instruments to perfection, but his conducting is also superior. The superb ensemble, led by Werner Hollweg’s Idomeneo, whose legato and phrasing are remarkable, is complemented by Trudeliese Schmidt’s great Idamante, Rachel Yakar’s tender Ilia, Felicity Palmer’s fierce Elettra and Kurt Equiluz’s correct Arbace.


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