One of the potential highlights of this year's Edinburgh International festival always seemed set to be the concert performance Mozart's Idomeneo, with a star studded cast, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Charles Mackerras. The team have previously played all the major Mozart operas in concert at the festival, making recordings in tandem, most recently La Clemenza di Tito in 2005. Sadly, Sir Charles's death last month meant that it was not to be and the performance was dedicated to his memory. In many ways it was a fitting tribute to his contributions to the festival.
In his place, Roger Norrington had stepped in. Despite Jonathan Mills' attempt to link them, I've never felt the two are terribly similar and often I find Norrington's personality gets in the way of the music. I was, therefore, extremely pleasantly surprised that not only did I not feel that to be the case, but furthermore, I did not find myself wishing that Mackerras had been on the podium. Norrington's approach was not overly hurried, as it can be. Instead, he let the music breath, though it still bounced along nicely, and under him the orchestra were on sparkling form.
The cast were exceptional. Thus it was the more impressive a feat that Joyce DiDonato stood out amongst them as Idamante. It was not simply that she has a beautiful voice, though she has one of the best, but that in addition she is a wonderful actress and has the most tremendous stage presence. Just take, for one example among so many, her cry of "Barbaro fato!" (cruel fate), in scene five of act one. Fully trouser suited up, she convinced in her portrayal of a man. In the title role, Kurt Streit gave an understated performance in the first act, but his act two aria "Fuor del mar ho un mare in seno" was extraordinary and he remained near that level for the rest of the night. Both Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell, as Ilia and Elettra, rivals for Idamante's affections, were on fine form. Even in the smaller roles there were no weak links, such as Rainer Trost (who worked with Mackerras on Clemenza, when he stood in at the last minute for Bostridge), who sang Arbace so well you wished it was a bigger part.
Norrington also managed his forces well for dramatic effect, splitting the fabulous SCO chorus, sending half of them offstage when distant voices were required. For the majority of their rehearsal period they had been working towards Mackerras's performance. Clearly Norrington had a different view, but no problems from the change seemed evident and Gregory Batsleer once again showed he was an excellent choice as chorus master. Offstage brass and timpani were managed similarly well. Cellist David Watkin also turned in a very fine performance, doubling up on continuo while still leading the cello section.
It was a long evening, running close to four hours, partly because they'd included the full ballet music at the end. But in Norrington's hands it worked, and the evening didn't really drag at all.
The only blemish was not the fault of any of the performers. Jonathan Mills made a brief introductory speech. This was fine, if a little faltering as he read from his notes. He paid tribute nicely to Mackerras and explained that a full tribute would be made in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert on 1st September (BBC Proms take note of how it should be done). The problem came afterwards as the PA continued to generate an annoying hiss for 25 minutes (the reasons for this are quite complicated as the comments below illustrate). Still, so magical was the music, that it didn't spoil the evening.
There will be more Mozart opera from the SCO soon enough as Robin Ticciati will open their new season with Don Giovanni in October. This, in many ways, is the finest tribute one could ask to Mackerras: namely that a tradition he instilled of concert performances of great opera by this fine ensemble will continue after him.