In my search for the best recording of "Idomeneo" I had overlooked this one for several spurious reasons. First I mistakenly believed that Pavarotti was not suited to the eponymous role; secondly I had always disliked two of the singers here, Edita Gruberova and Leo Nucci.
Now, it is true that through forcing Nucci later - all too soon, in fact - developed a terrible wobble and a scooping habit in combination with a loss of centre in his tone - but here he sounds as he did the first time I heard him in "Luisa Miller" at Covent Garden: firm, agile and focused, making a real event out of Arbace's arias which are often cut. Gruberova, too, has her voice well under control, without the distracting flutter and gulping which afflicted other performances; she is ideally distracted and hysterical as Elettra, in whose music a little stridency does not go amiss. She complements the delightfully pure and innocent Ilia of Lucia Popp, who sings divinely in "Se il padre perdei" even if occasionally both she and Gruberova give in to a "squeezing" mannerism when leaning into notes. Pavarotti is more heroic in a bravura "Fuor del mar" than any of the competition, even Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and he has that special gleam in his sound which brings the character alive and enhances the drama of the action in a way which evades John Eliot Gardiner's set. Furthermore, he even essays a passable trill. He was, after all, only 47 years old here and would sing very well for at least another ten years. Baltsa is an agile, rich-voiced, slightly tough, hence suitably masculine Idamante. The trio "Pria di partir" is exquisite and it is noticeable how often Pavarotti reins in his voice to sing quietly with great beauty.
Other advantages include a splendidly clear digital recording, a full libretto and the presence of a reduced VPO playing in appropriately light, elegant style under Pritchard's flexible and sympathetic conducting; the ensemble work is flawless.
This goes to the top of my recommendations for this opera, even though I still admire the 1957 EMI recording with Richard Lewis, Léopold Simoneau and Sena Jurinac - also conducted by Pritchard very much earlier in his career. I am indebted to a fellow music-lover for pointing me towards this one.