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Roger Nottington breathes freshness into Idomeneo

IDOMENEO

Written by Mozart.

Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra,

Roger Norrington conducting.

Tremont Temple, Boston, June 2 & 3.

By JULIAN WEST

"T

OO MANY NOTES" is the devastatingly simple criticism of Idomeneo presented by the character of Salieri in Peter Shaeffer's play Amadeus.

True, it is an opera with a tendency to drag. But much of this is the fault of a static and rather superficial libretto. The rest can gently be put down to inexperience -- this was Mozart's first significant opera. It clearly marks the transition between the structured, baroque opera seria of Handel and Mozart's later masterpieces. So, it was ripe for an original-instruments rendition.

Roger Norrington's production appeals to a much wider audience than the serious Mozart scholars. He has made full use of the unfamiliar setting to breathe freshness into the work. Here was one Idomeneo which rarely sounded heavy or overworked. And there were moments of surprising clarity and brilliance, encompassing pretty well all of the third act.

The orchestra included only about 40 instruments, a good many of them unfamiliar to modern eyes, arrayed in a ring on the stage. At the center, like a monarch on an anachronistic swivel-chair, sat Norrington, in complete control of the proceedings. He conducted without a baton, making deft finger motions like a puppetmaster, and seemingly communicating to the entire chorus and orchestra, including those strings seated behind him.

Among the vocal performances, the standout was Jeffrey Thomas as Idomeneo. His performance was the more outstanding as he was originally to sing Arbace, but took over the title role after Anthony Rolfe Johnson became indisposed. His emotive rendering of Idomeneo's second act aria "Fuor del mar" poured beautifully out to fill the hall. Even his act-ending recitative "Eccoti in me, barbaro Nume!" conveyed powerful feeling.

Lorraine Hunt was a sweet-voiced, somewhat naive Idamante. Jeanne Ommerl'e provided an Ilia of radiant clarity, but her voice was occasionally swallowed up by the orchestra. Altogether, there was sufficient vocal talent on hand to make the great third-act quartet an experience not easily forgotten. (Lisa Saffer, as Elettra, made up the fourth of the quartet.)

No matter how familiar they are with their period instruments, the lengthy work places considerable demands on a small orchestra. Yet after pretty nearly three hours of music, they were able to play the final ballet, which amounts to a short symphony, with considerable style and expression. It provided an exhilarating conclusion to the evening.