There are people who like to dislike – I am not like that. When one dislikes something, one generally tends to miss an important aspect of what he or she dislikes. For example, I like René Jacobs – I like his Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings. I even found his Rossini interesting – but I really don’t like his Mozart opera series for Harmonia Mundi. I find the orchestral sound brassy and unclear, the casting is eccentric and there is not a drop of sensuousness in these performances (at least for me, a serious blemish for the Da Ponte works). But I know I am alone here – everybody loves these recordings, they were awarded hundreds of prizes etc. That is why I am always ready to give a second chance.
If I had to rescue one among Jacobs’s Mozart recordings, this would certainly be La Clemenza di Tito. His baroque mannerisms somehow fit more comfortably in the context of opera seria – and that is why I finally decided to spend my last evening in Paris in the Salle Pleyel to check his concert performance of Idomeneo (to be released on CD).
First of all, I have discovered that Harmonia Mundi has a great share of responsibility in my dislike. Live at the theatre, I found the Freiburger Barockorchester significantly more pleasant than in Jacobs’s recordings. The brass instruments are far more integrated in the texture and the fortepiano (as one could imagine) is truly less intrusive (although we were treated to a mini-overture for act II on it ). I still expected clearer execution of passagework in string instruments, but what I heard is closer to what one would expect of a period instrument group (even if I have personally heard some far more polished in sound).
In what regards the conducting in itself, this was a gripping and theatrical performance, less efficient in lyrical passages when – again – everything seriously lacked affection. Part of the reason is the conductor’s overbearing intrusion in singers’ phrasing. For example, if he suspects something is a grace note, be sure that he’ll make the poor singer (or the orchestra) hiccup on it regardless of legato or the expressive atmosphere. Of course, the concept of legato and our intuitive ideas of expression do not belong to the XVIIIth century – but we, for that matter, don’t belong to that age either. In any case, this is too long a discussion for this post and I’ll answer the 1,000,000-question: yes, I will buy the CDs. Well, the truth is that I have bought all the others. So, I should say I will probably listen to this Idomeneo quite often – especially for the extremely well-buit public scenes, in which the RIAS Kammerchor offer accurate and dramatically aware singing: the act I finale is particularly effective.
Jacobs also counts with a distinguished cast here – some of these singers have appeared in previous releases in the series, but here they are more or less better cast. The immediate exception would be Sunhae Im, whose soubrettish voice is not anyone’s first idea for such a lyric soprano role. Her tone comes basically in one bell-like shape and, if her response to more dramatic scenes never went beyond adding a slightly more metallic edge to her voice, she finally convinced us of her Ilia by virtue of crystal-clear diction, vivid and intelligent response to the text and immaculate technique. Her ability to sing loooooong lines in one breath is really praiseworthy, for instance. It is a pity that the conductor prepared her such elaborate ornamentation for Zeffiretti lusinghieri – again the classical motto inutilia truncat would have ensured touching instead of extravagant results.
Alexandrina Pendatchanska, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for Elettra. She is a singer with impressive resources, not always perfectly handled, but Jacobs seems to be a good influence on her. It is true that Tutte nel cor was a bit lost on register shifting and the fast and dance-like Idol’ mio was overcareful, but she really developed to create, in spite of an awkward close, the right effect in D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. To be more specific, the accompagnato Oh, smanie! Oh, furie! was sung in the great manner, with some stunning high pianissimi.
Bernarda Fink’s voice has seen more generous days – it is still lovely, but the lower end has become quite modest and top notes are less focused than they used to be. That said, she is the kind of singer who always goes straight to the point in what regards interpretation. Her encounter with Idomeneo in act I and the sacrifice scene were extremely moving and convincing. Considering her commendable handling of the difficult tessitura in No, la morte, one could say her performance gained in strength since a rather colourless Non ho colpa.
When Richard Croft first appeared on scene, I feared he might be indisposed or something like that. He seemed uncomfortable, often had his hands on his mouth or his ears and an anxious look about him, but as soon as he produced his first note, I reckoned that whatever affliction he might be experiencing had no effect on his singing. This is a voice of immediate charm, extremely pleasant on the year, light-toned but firm and strong to the bottom of his range. His phrasing is amazingly graceful and stylish (he was probably the one singer in the cast who followed Jacobs’s disciplinarian regime on phrasing and ornamentation as if he himself had devised all that) and his accuracy with fioriture is a marvel. His account of his difficult arias (including the long version of Fuor del mar and Torna la pace) were exemplary – I only wish he could gave himself a bit more to the emotional experience of singing Idomeneo. His approach to the role was so detached that sometimes I felt he was sight-reading his recitatives! Maybe this was the effect of his apparent uneaseness. In any case, this is a performance I don’t wish to find fault with - this was simply Mozart singing of the highest order.
The role of Arbace was similarly cast from strength with Kenneth Tarver, who is one of the most elegant and technically accomplished Mozart tenors these days. For a change, listening to both Arbace’s arias was rather a pleasure than an ordeal to the audience. Nicolas Rivenq sang the short role of Neptune’s High Priest to perfection and Luca Tittolo’s sonorous is exactly what the voice of Neptune requires.