Major Operas | Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Classical Era

Mozart had long admired the inspired synthesis of French and Italian opera in Gluck’s ‘reform’ works. His greatest opera seria, Idomeneo, premiered in Munich on 29 January 1781, draws much from Gluck, especially the hieratic scenes of Alceste (another opera concerned with human sacrifice). Yet its harmonic daring, orchestral richness and lyrical expansiveness are entirely Mozart’s own.

Combining the sophistication of maturity with the reckless abundance of youth, Idomeneo constantly challenges and expands the boundaries of opera seria. Its prodigious musical invention throws up problems in performance – something Mozart himself acknowledged when at the last minute he drastically pruned the recitatives and cut several arias. Even so, none of Mozart’s other operas has such a grand, heroic sweep, or explores emotional extremes so searchingly as this allegory of the passage of power from age to youth.

The characters are drawn with subtlety and compassion, especially the tormented king, played in Munich by the 66-year-old tenor Anton Raaff; the raging, ultimately unhinged Electra; and the Trojan Princess Ilia. They grow from sorrow, in a piercing G-minor lament, through acceptance to radiance. In addition, the writing for the chorus – inextricably bound up in the fate of King Idomeneus and his son Idamantes – has a unique magnificence and dramatic force, above all in the thrilling storm scene that forms the climax of the second act.

Composed: 1780–81
Premiered: 1781, Munich
Libretto by Gianbattista Varesco, after Antoine Danchet and Crébillon

Act I

In the royal dungeons, Ilia, daughter of King Priam of Troy, is being held prisoner. Her hatred of the enemy is confused by her growing love for Idamantes, Idomeneus’s son, who frees the prisoners and declares his love for her. Thinking that he is being courted by Electra, Ilia hides her feelings. The news arrives that Idomeneus has been killed at sea; Electra laments that he can now not bless her wedding to Idamantes and is perturbed to witness Idamantes and Ilia’s feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Idomeneus arrives on the shore of Crete while Idamantes searches for his body among the wreckage. The two men meet but do not at first know each other, but as the truth of their identities dawns, Idomeneus is horrified to realize that the sacrifice he must make to Neptune is his only son. He rejects the bewildered Idamantes and runs off.

Act II

Back at the palace, Idomeneus explains his predicament to Arbaces, his confidant, who feels that Neptune is more likely to spare Idamantes if he is exiled. The two plan for Idamantes to escort Electra back to Argos, her homeland, and stay there until the arrangement with Neptune has been resolved. Ilia encounters Idomeneus; the king, while reassuring and comforting her, realizes that she is in love with Idamantes and laments the fact that she too will suffer if he is exiled. Electra is pleased at the prospect of leaving with Idamantes, certain that she can win his love.

At the port,...

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