It has taken, incredibly, five years for Sir John Pritchard's Idomeneo to appear, and the opera has come a long way since then. This recording seems to belong to an even earlier era: to that long abysm of time before Harnoncourt, before Davis even, when the opera still languished in the shadows of inappropriate casting, sluggish tempos and an indiscriminating reverence for Mozart at his most verbose. This seems no more than a superfluity in the catalogue, and an anachronistic one at that.
Longwindedness is its hallmark. Now Sir Colin Davis (Philips) includes Idomeneo's ''Torna la pace'' and Elettra's ''D'Oreste, d'Aiace'', both of which were deleted by Mozart for dramaturgical reasons. But he trims the recitative, ensures its impetus, and races with the opera's pulse from start to finish. Pritchard gives us almost every available note and takes as long to do so as is humanly possible. Like Harnoncourt (Teldec), he allows Arbace his aria, but Leo Nucci, albeit a convincing elder statesman, makes pretty heavy weather of it. He gives both Idomeneo and Elettra their extra arias; but also retains Idamante's ''No, la morte''. Mozart, before the first performance, wisely removed this obstacle to a speedy denouement; but Pritchard, whose interminable ''Placido il mar'' has already warned us of his addiction to long farewells, spins out the agony to the last syllable of recorded time. He gives The Voice a good run for its money, too: Nikita's Storojew's stentorian pronouncements must form one of the most stirring dei ex machina on disc, with full trombone and horn accompaniment to the longest of Mozart's three versions.
All of this would matter less if the entire production were not calculated to drain the opera of the last drop of its dramatic life-blood. Not only are Pritchard's tempos slow (almost unendurably so in the recitative) but his handling of the Vienna Philharmonic irons out much of the nervous accuity of Mozart's writing. Where Davis creates impetus by parting and matching orchestral textures with fine sensitivity, and where Harnoncourt achieves momentum by penetrating the nerve system of rhythms, accents and inflexion Pritchard prefers to mollify and homogenize. The echoy-acoustic of Vienna's Sofiensaal, and a recording balance which embraces the bass and masks the all-important woodwind, hardly helps.
This seems a cast chosen for the resonance of its names rather than the relevance of its vocal character. Not one singer manages to focus that classical conflict of joy and pain, content and fear compressed simultaneously in Mozart's writing, particularly in the music of Ilia and Idamante. Lucia Popp sings with poignancy and plangency: this is a sympathetic performance but with much of its anxiety and pain too easily assuaged by Pritchard's pacing and soft-focus accompanying. Agnes Baltsa's achievement is, unusually, vocal rather than dramatic. The voice is smoothly integrated; the presence strangely distanced. Her ''Non ho colpa'' and ''II padre adorato'' are uncharacteristically numb compared with the living lines of Trudeliese Schmidt (for Harnoncourt).
Neither she nor Gruberova is under the skin of their respective roles. Gruberova's Elettra has the measure of the music's brilliance, and her ''Idol mio'' shows the glow of joy which surfaces momentarily. But hers are tantrums not furies (a miscalculation comparable to that of the Orestes in Jonathan Miller's recent Andromache); and both Pauline Tinsley (Davis) and Felicity Palmer (Harnoncourt) avoid the pitfall. Pavarotti is Idomeneo: enough said. His is a deeply committed performance, revealing the king's greatness of heart and his just raging in a larger-than-life portrait. But it functions outside the scale of the work while bringing no more thrills to ''Fuor del mar'' than are provided by either George Shirley (Davis) or Wemer Hollweg (Harnoncourt).'