René Jacobs

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The Belgian conductor explains why the ancient Greek tale of Idomeneo, as interpreted by Mozart, is now more relevant than ever

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Idomeneo has a reputation for being quite a static opera. What made you decide to record it uncut?
The problem of Idomeneo is, I think, similar with the problem of Beethoven's Fidelio; at the end of the opera, especially the second half of Act III, it becomes like an oratorio. But if I ever staged this uncut version I think it could be brought to life by a good team of intelligent singers who really understand what they’re singing about.

Looking at the story itself, it’s based on ancient Greek history
and mythology. What would you say is the opera’s appeal for a modern audience?

The appeal is very much the same as the appeal would be for the enlightened audience at the end of the 18th century. The French text [by Antoine Danchet] on which the libretto is based has lots of gods from mythology. Mozart’s librettist, Giambattista Varesco, includes only one – Neptune – which you need to tell the story, but he does not even sing, though some people in the opera think they’ve seen him, especially in what you might call a chorus of mass hysteria. Mozart didn’t believe in religion as an institution, as is very clear from his letters; he was a freemason and he belonged to heavily anti-clerical and anti-Catholic circles. So when at the end of the opera this so-called deus ex machina comes [as conventionally happens in dramas of that period when a machine bearing a god is lowered from above to resolve the drama] I think it’s not that at all: he does not come out of a machine and he remains unseen.

So who is he?
Mozart called him ‘the Voice’, but not ‘the voice of Neptune’, because Neptune is an invention of primitive people. For me it’s very much the voice of humanity; typically for Mozart’s masonic music ‘the Voice’ sings with a bass voice like Sarastro. So it’s very much an opera for our times –we are again living in a time of religious fanaticism and extremism and Mozart clearly appears to be very much against that. The most unsympathetic character is the High Priest: he first appears in Act III with accompagnato recitative based on one theme, which is repeated over and over again in all kinds of tonalities, but it’s monothematic – it’s like a musical symbol of fanaticism.

Very well characterised by your singer, baritone Nicolas Rivenq. This brings me to your cast – were they people you’d worked with before? Had they sung these roles before?
They were all singers I had worked with before. I’d heard Richard Croft as Idomeneo ten years ago in a production in Antwerp. And of course Bernarda Fink is somebody that I’ve worked with a lot; she’d done Idamante [Idomeneo’s son] recently in Madrid, and I was very happy that she accepted to do Idamante for the recording. I can see Idamante only as a high mezzo-soprano; sometimes it’s uncomfortably high for a mezzo, I think you need a mezzo to get something of a masculine quality in the voice. But it’s not necessarily an advantage to have singers who have done Idomeneo over and over again as there’s a risk of them becoming routine. Richard Croft had done the role, it was only a couple of times and of course this was very new to him because all cuts were ‘opened’, so there were a lot of things that he sang for the first time, such as the final aria which is normally cut.

Interview by Daniel Jaffé

Audio clip: Mozart: Idomeneo – 'No, la morte io non pavento'
Image: Harmonia Mundi

CD: Mozart: Idomeneo
Richard Croft, Bernarda Fink, Sunhae Im, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Kenneth Tarver, Nicolas Rivenq, Luca Tittoto; RIAS Chamber Choir; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902036-38  

Related links:
Original Mozart from René Jacobs
Conductor Semyon Bychkov on Wagner's Lohengrin