Of all the luck, Idomeneo, the king of a great seafaring people gets caught in a terrible storm at sea, while returning with captives and plunder from the Trojan war. He makes a really bad bargain with Neptune—to sacrifice the first person he meets on shore—if he’s allowed to survive.
Turns out it’s his son Idamante, who has meanwhile fallen in love with the Trojan princess who was on board one of the ships. Naturally, Idomeneo seeks a way out of his predicament, by pretending not to care for his son and trying to send him away with an jealous Greek princess (Electra) who also loves Idamante.
Unfortunately, Neptune isn’t buying it, and he unleashes more storms and monsters on the cowering Cretans. Idamante offers himself to quell the terror, and his true love, the Trojan princess Ilia, then steps in to offer herself, when finally a sepulchral voice from the gods’ realm announces that true love has conquered, and that the son shall now rule. Poor Electra, not even a bridesmaid this time.
By the way, Electra fares a lot better 130 years later in Richard Strauss’ opera, in which she and her brother murder her whoring mother who killed her father and married her uncle. No pastel plots in ancient Greece apparently.
So, there you have it in a cracked nutshell, the plot of “Idomeneo, Rè di Creta” K366, by Mozart. Composed in 1780/81, when he was 24, it is the first of his mature operas to achieve a place in the standard repertoire, though that was a long time coming.
It’s often called an “opera seria” (serious or tragic opera) incorrectly. That is an old-fashioned Baroque term. In Handel’s day, for instance, singers generally stood still and sang lengthy “da capo” arias, in which the first (A) section is repeated after the middle (B) section, often with extravagant ornamentation. Mozart’s plot, while borrowed from a 1712 French opera book, qualifies with its ancient locale, kings, princesses and gods, but his musical procedure is very progressive, showing how much he concerned himself with dramatic continuity, with great theater.
Mozart made the aria endings transition directly into the following recitatives or choruses, making larger spans out of what might have been self-contained “numbers.” His feeling for instrumental color as a vehicle of dramatic expression is advanced, and the use of remote tonalities to express heightened emotions is vivid. He demanded four trombones, traditionally used for sepulchral effects, to accompany the “voice” from the gods’ world. After extensive revision, that passage was reduced from 33 measures to 9, causing the imperial budget office to complain about the extravagance for such a short bit.
Despite praise from the Elector of Bavaria: “Who would believe that such great things could be hidden in so small a head?” the opera was only performed three times in early 1781. Mozart heavily reworked it for one private Viennese performance five years later, a sign of how important the work was to him. Another contemporary remarked that the music was “so powerful that it could make one cold as ice even in the heat of summertime.” Maybe the January premiere influenced his temperature sense.
Then it lay dormant until the twentieth century. The aforementioned R. Strauss even made his own arrangement, the product of a pre-urtext era. From the 1950s to the present, with the aid of recordings, it has regained some prominence.
The music is difficult to sing, the role of Idamante was originally conceived for castrato, already a bit of anachronism in 1781. “I have to teach him every note, like a child” the impatient Mozart said. Mozart reworked the role for mezzo-soprano, which is how it is heard today.
His original Idomeneo was a 66 year old tenor, a crusty veteran of the opera stage who had seen better days. Mozart’s writing for him shows great kindness in view of his vocal state, yet challenges him too with the customary florid runs. The singer demanded nearly constant rewrites, which kept the ink wet right up to the premiere, common practice in those days.
Sweet Polly Purebred, I mean Ilia, must sound noble and not saccharine, in sentiments that we are not so comfortable mouthing today. But, this is eighteenth century opera, after all. And what to do about Electra? Her jealous rants must have power and that “edge” of insanity, while being sung accurately and with beautiful tone, as the classical ideal demands.
If you hear of a production near you, by all means go. Or buy one of the many recordings now available, some profiting from the many advances in “historically informed” performance practice. At least in all but the castrato issue! But that’s another blog.
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs