Benjamin Britten Conducts Idomeneo (DVD)

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Idomeneo – Dramma per musica in three acts to a libretto by Giambattista Varesco [performed in an edition by Benjamin Britten and in an English translation by Maisie and Evelyn Radford]

Idomeneo – Peter Pears
Idamante – Anne Pashley
Ilia – Heather Harper
Elektra – Rae Woodland
Arbace – Robert Tear
High Priest of Neptune – Anthony Williams
A Priest – Paul Nemeer

English Opera Chorus

English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten

Colin Graham – Producer
Brian Large – Director for Television
David Collis – Costumes and Relief Work
Graham Haines – Sound
Hubert Cartwright – Lighting
David Myerscough-Jones – Design

Recorded on 8 & 9 September 1969 at London Opera Centre; first broadcast on 10 May 1970 on BBC 2

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: September 2008
CD No: DECCA 074 3258
(2 DVDs)
Duration: 2 hours 44 minutes



It is a strange fact that, of the operas that might be called mainstream Mozart, “Idomeneo” is the one that is generally regarded as box-office poison and yet has been more frequently arranged than any of the composer’s other works, operatic or otherwise.

Not all these arrangements have stood the test of time; Richard Strauss’s, however, has had a couple of recordings. Here we have a DVD issue of a staged production of a version by Benjamin Britten that was recorded and colour-filmed over two days in September 1969.

It dates from a time when operatic acting often comprised stock postures and gesture – it was quite acceptable simply to stand there and sing beautifully. One might have expected productions made for television to have bucked the trend and been more detailed, but this presentation demonstrates that this was not necessarily the case, which complete with amusingly staid introduction by John Warrack, is certainly valuable as an historical record.

It also enshrines some wonderful singing although some may find the staginess of the production a deterrent to repeated viewing. Britten’s version is a somewhat foreshortened version of the score, although it keeps the dramatic pace and pulse going, and retains the best of the original. Sound quality is good but not ideal, and in general the balance favours the voices.

And there are some great voices on display here. Peter Pears, with his utterly distinctive and individual tone is caught perhaps just past his prime but still displaying a keen sense of line and much Mozartean grace. As one would expect the text is projected with a Lieder-singer’s care for detail and dramatic effect. His acting is rather of the semaphore school and certainly as far as dramatic credibility he’s not always helped by some of the close camera angles.

In this version Britten opted for Idamante to be sung by a mezzo, here Anne Pashley, a light, attractive voice. But despite her armoured costume, she seems too feminine for a young hero. Heather Harper lavishes on Ilia the superb singing and creaminess of tone for which she was so much valued. She has much presence as well, although again the static nature of the staging does not really help her. Nowadays one would probably have a lighter voice in the part. Rae Woodland is a strong if curiously placid and not particularly individual Elektra, and it is fun to see the young Robert Tear as Arbace.

Initially you might find it hard to take this production seriously, although it eventually becomes compelling on its own terms. The sea-monster is rather benign and the storm scene not very imaginatively handled; costuming and settings are fairly stylised, the make-up and wigs very much of the time. One realises how far operatic presentation in general has advanced since this time and how much opera has come to rely on the ‘singing-actor’. Nonetheless, this is a valuable issue, and devotees of Harper and Pears in particular will find much to enjoy.

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