Strauss never doubted his aesthetic judgement in adapting Idomeneo for the Vienna Staatsoper. Piqued by its failure, he wrote to Bruno Walter: “Let the critics say what they will. I know my Mozart better than these gentlemen, and in any case love him more ardently than they do!” In Salzburg in 2006, as in Vienna in 1931, most critics agreed that “love” and “knowledge” were not enough, and denounced Strauss’s radical recension (in German) as a bombastic travesty. Mozart’s arias and choruses were filleted in the name of dramatic “tightness”, and new music added, with Mozart’s recitativo secco ditched in favour of lush, leitmotif-saturated orchestral recitatives. The plot, too, was partly rethought, with Elettra morphing into the hysterical high priestess and Greek racial supremacist Ismene.
The shifts between real Mozart, Mozartian pastiche, louring Wagnerian Strauss and ecstatic, lyrical Strauss (in the Rosenkavalier-meets-Die Frau ohne Schatten quartet near the end) can be disconcerting, to put it mildly. Still, as I suggested when reviewing the world premiere recording (Dynamic, A/07) – and rashly predicting that a second recording was “unlikely to be round the corner” – Strauss’s labour of love can exert a kind of grotesque fascination.
Those who bought the rough-and-ready Dynamic recording, made at the 2006 Martina Franca Festival, have my sympathy. While hardly flawless, this Salzburg Festival performance is better played (Strauss would have noted with approval that the Dresden strings and wind still cultivate their distinctively mellow, rounded sonorities), more theatrically conducted, and certainly better sung. As Idomeneo, the baritonal tenor Robert Gambill doesn’t exactly do grace, but is at least more sensitive than Dario Schmunck on the Dynamic recording. Iris Vermillion sings a forceful, “masculine” Idamante, slightly squally in her opening aria (the rondo with solo violin that Mozart wrote for the opera’s 1786 Viennese revival) but always dramatically involving.
Camilla Nylund, though sometimes audibly at the edge of the possible, manages to suggest the repulsive Ismene’s demented fanaticism without shrieking. Best of the soloists is the Ilia, Britta Stallmeister, who launches the quartet before the final chorus with an echt-Straussian silvery radiance. The chorus sings robustly (though Luisi takes the exquisite barcarolle “Placido è il mar” too jauntily) and singers in the smaller roles are in a different league from their Martina Franca counterparts. The recording is a bit boxy, but acceptable. A clear-cut choice, then, for anyone wanting this strange, perversely absorbing slice of operatic history.