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Idomeneo, re di Creta (Idomeneo, King of Crete)

COMPOSER :Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

LIBRETTIST :Giambattista Varesco

CREATION YEAR :1781

CREATION PLACE :Germany

ACTS NUMBER :3

REFERENCE :K.366

ORIGINAL LANGUAGE :Italian

OPERA HOUSE OF ORIGINAL PRODUCTION :Cuvilliés-Theater, Munich

Idomeneo, rè di Creta marks a decisive point in the career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Until
he tackled this project, commissioned by Bavaria’s Elector Karl Theodor in 1780, the young
Austrian composer had worked in the genre of opera seria with limited success. Thanks to a
confluence of fortunate circumstances, with Idomeneo Mozart could unleash his creativity. The
result, as audiences at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma will see, was nothing short of stunning.

With a libretto by Gianbattista Varesco, derived from an earlier version set by the Frenchman
André Campra, Idomeneo (or “Idomeneus, King of Crete” in English) gave Mozart the perfect
opportunity to push the boundaries of the genre of opera seria. The composer welcomed the
French influence already attached to the original libretto, and he produced a score that
combined the Italian singing style with the French dramaturgical sensibility. It was a match
made in heaven, even if it was ahead of its time.

Another factor that allowed Mozart to unchain his creativity was the fantastic, extra-large
orchestra of the Bavarian Elector’s court. The composer deliberately wrote with the excellent
ensemble in mind, and many agree the orchestral scoring for Idomeneo remains his richest,
most complex ever. As moments of epic action alternate with more private scenes of doubt,
internal struggle, or love, the orchestra is always present and drives the plot forward with
precision and dramatic flair.

Mozart’s epic score supports a grand story: Idomeneo, King of Crete, is sailing home after the
Trojan War when a storm threatens to sink his ship. To gain Neptune’s favour, he promises the
sea god a sacrifice. Little does he know that the sacrifice would have to be his own son,
Idamante.

As the father confronts the tragic choice between killing his child and angering Neptune, a love
triangle forms between Idamante, Troy’s Princess Ilia and Argos’s Princess Elettra. Loyalties are
tested, great battles are fought, while parental and romantic love must challenge a mighty god
to finally restore justice.

Idomeneo had its premiere on 29 January 1781 at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich. Ironically, the
only press account of that night focussed its praise on the stage designs and décor; it even
omitted the composer’s name. Centuries later, Idomeneo’s full potential is finally appreciated,
and the opera is a celebrated jewel in Mozart’s crown.

***

“One of those works that even a first-class genius like Mozart manages only once in his
lifetime.”  That is how Alfred Einstein defined Idomeneo, King of Crete, Mozart’s third venture
into the “opera seria” genre, demolishing its traditional boundaries to open the way to
lyric drama.

(Opera seria, (Italian: “serious opera”), style of Italian opera dominant in 18th-century Europe. It emerged in the
late 17th century, notably in the work of Alessandro Scarlatti and other composers working in Naples, and is thus
frequently called Neapolitan opera. The primary musical emphasis of opera seria was on the solo voice and on bel
canto, the florid vocal style of the period. Chorus and orchestra played a circumscribed role. High voices were
cultivated, both in women and in the castrati, or eunuch sopranos. Music and text were divided into recitative
(simply accompanied dialogue sung with speech rhythms), which advanced the dramatic action, and arias,
solos that reflected a character’s feelings and also served as vehicles for vocal virtuosity. Arias
characteristically took the da capo form (ABA), the first section (A) being repeated after the B section, but with
improvised embellishments.)

After Mithridate (1770) and Lucio Silla (1772), blending youthful earnestness with mature
mastery, Mozart uses – while profoundly changing – the elements of a genre based on arias
that come one after another with no real concern for dramatic progression.The hero bound by
an oath that forces him to sacrifice a loved one, a popular theme in the 18th century,
offered him wonderful resources. As is demonstrated by the voluminous correspondence
exchanged with his father during the brief and exciting genesis of this work, Mozart
constantly sought to modify the original libretto, which he found disappointing, instilling
in it a new theatrical dynamic through his musical innovations. The presence in Munich of
the famous Mannheim Orchestra, considered the best in Europe at the time, contributed to the
development of an exceptional symphonic richness. From the Overture on, the orchestra
establishes itself as protagonist. The importance and expressive power of the choirs,
inspired by Gluck’s lyric tragedy, discovered in Paris, foreshadow The Magic Flute. Ilia and
Idamante pave the way for Pamina and Tamino, while Electra, the dark fury, is given
extraordinary prominence through the daring writing that characterises this forerunner to the
Queen of the Night. Idomeneo, conceived to order for the famous tenor Anton Raaf, continues
to attract great singers like Pavarotti and Domingo.This innovative opera was Mozart’s first
great success featuring the abdication of a king in favour of his son just as he was freeing
himself from his father’s protection.There have been three versions of the work:an initial score
preceding the performance; the score used in 1981 at the Munich premiere, with deletions, and
a version created at a revival in Vienna in 1786.

• In Idomeneo, rè di Creta Mozart depicted serious, heroic emotion with a richness


unparalleled elsewhere in his operas.

• Though influenced by Christoph Gluck and by Niccolò Piccinni and others, it is not a “reform
opera”: it includes plain recitative and bravura singing, but always to a dramatic purpose,
and, though the texture is more continuous than in Mozart’s earlier operas, its plan, because
of its French source, is essentially traditional.

• Given on January 29, 1781, just after Mozart’s 25th birthday, it met with due success. Mozart
and his father were still in Munich when, on March 12, he was summoned to join the
archbishop’s retinue in Vienna, where the accession of Joseph II was being celebrated.

Idomeneo is Mozart's greatest opera seria and his first dramatic masterpiece, yet for almost
two centuries, between its premiere in Munich in 1781 and the 1950s, it was hardly performed
at all. It was regarded as flawed, despite some undeniably great music.

Now, though, Idomeneo's place in the Mozart canon is assured, and it can be seen for what it
is: the 24-year-old composer's response to the challenge of reconciling the rather
outmoded conventions of opera seria with the innovations of Gluck and the expressive
potential of the French lyric tragedies. Mozart composed Idomeneo for the Mannheim
company of the newly installed Elector of Bavaria; it was carefully tailored to specific singers,
and his score underwent significant revisions before the first performance.

First performed in 1781 in Munich, Idomeneo is known as Mozart's first "great" opera, which
launched Mozart (although only aged 25) as a mature composer on the opera scene. It tells
the story from Greek mythology about the Cretan King Idomeneo, who has to decide
between the life of his son and the welfare of his people. "What's Idomeneo about? It's
about people, who return home after a long, horrible war which we still talk about today,
and continue to carry the weight of events on their shoulders. They have baggage, so to
speak, which they are unable to get rid of." (Kasper Holten)

***

Cast

Ilia - daughter of King Priam of Troy - Soprano

Idomeneo - King of Crete - Tenor

Idamante - Son of Idomeneo - Soprano castrato, later written as Tenor

Elettra - Princess of Argos - Soprano

Arbace - Idomeneo’s confidant - Tenor

High priest of Neptune - Tenor

The voice of the Oracle of Neptune - Bass

Two Cretan women - Soprano and Mezzo soprano

Two Trojans - Tenor and Bass

***

Summary

After the fall of Troy, King Idomeneo can finally dream of returning to his homeland after a long
absence, during which his son Idamante ensured the continuity of his reign and guarded Trojan
prisoners, including Ilia, King Priam’s daughter.  To escape from a terrible storm that is keeping
him from reaching Crete, Idomeneo promises Neptune to sacrifice the first living being he
encounters upon landing.Unfortunately, it is his own son who greets him in his native land.By
offering her own life in exchange for that of Idamante, whom she loves and who loves her, Illia
manages to get Neptune to yield and to deliver Idomeneo from his fateful vow.

***

Ilia, daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy, is living on Crete as a prisoner of war. Although she
cannot forget the destruction of her home by the Greek confederates, she has fallen in love
with Idamante, son of the Cretan king Idomeneo. Electra, who has sought refuge on Crete
following the murder of her mother, is also in love with Idamante. When the ships of his father
are finally sighted, returning home, Idamante grants all the Trojans their freedom, and at the
same time declares his love for Ilia. Electra is distraught. Idomeneo barely escapes the storm
that has engulfed his ships. Only his vow to sacrifice the first person whom he meets on land
appeases Neptune, the god of the sea. When Idomeneo realizes that this person is none other
than his son Idamante, whom he meets on the shore, he tries to find a way to avoid fulfilling his
vow. On the advice of Arbace, Electra and Idamante are to leave Crete and ascend the throne
in Argos as the new rulers. However, a monster sent by Neptune rises out of the sea during a
storm to prevent their departure. Since Ilia has not yet confessed her love to Idamante and he
does not understand his fathers harsh treatment of him, he decides he would rather die fighting
the monster. When Idomeneo confesses that Neptune will be placated only if he sacrifices his
son, the people are aghast. Now the king is prepared to offer up his son  even though
Idamante has killed the monster. As he prepares to sacrifice Idamante, who is now ready to
die, Ilia intervenes, declaring that she will die in his place. A voice announces that Idomeneo
should abdicate the throne, and that Idamante and Ilia must take the throne as king and queen
of Crete. The people pay homage to the royal couple; Electra alone curses her fate.

***

Act 1

Illia, daughter of King Priam, is held prisoner at the court of the King of Crete, Idomeneo,
whose imminent return is announced after the end of the Trojan War. The young princess is
distressed by her feelings for her enemy and jailer, Idamante, son of Idomeneo.  Her passion is
reciprocated. Idamante decides to free his Trojan prisoners to celebrate the long-awaited return
of his father, provoking the jealous fury of Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, who came to Crete
after her mother’s murder by Orestes. Electra loves Idamante passionately and is fiercely
jealous of her rival, Illia. For his part, hoping to escape a furious storm threatening his fleet,
Idomeneo promises Neptune to sacrifice the first mortal he encounters on the shore.  But when
he lands safe and sound, it is his own son Idamante coming to meet him. Frightened,
Idomeneo pushes him away and flees.

Act 2

Idomeneo reveals to his confidant, Arbace, the terrible vow hanging over his son. They decide
to send Idamante away, asking him to accompany Electra to Greece. The young man despairs
at the idea of abandoning Illia, his father and his homeland, while Electra is delighted to be able
to reconquer the one she loves. But as they are about to depart, a terrible monster rises out of
the waves. Neptune has foiled Idomeneo’s ruse; Idomeneo offers himself in sacrifice as the
frightened Cretans flee.

Act 3

Idamante and Ilia acknowledge their mutual passion. They are surprised by Electra and
Idomeneo, who begs his son to leave. The angry people and the High Priest want to know the
name of the one stirring up the gods’ wrath. Idomeneo admits that he promised his son’s life to
Neptune. After defeating the sea monster, Idamante comes to offer himself as sacrifice. Just as
Idomeneo is about to strike the fatal blow, Illia steps in and offers to die in his place. The voice
of Neptune’s oracle then resounds, demanding that Idomeneo renounce the throne in favour of
his son, who will reign with Illia as his wife. Electra disappears, gripped by rage. Idomeneo
fulfils the god’s wish, and peace returns to his soul.