Online opera guide & synopsis to Mozart’s IDOMENEO
Mozart considered Idomeneo to be his greatest work in the genre of opera. Inspired by the operas of Gluck, which he had seen in his Parisian period, he wrote perhaps the best baroque opera in history.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Estinto è Idomeneo … Tutto nel cor vi sento Rage aria I
♪ Zeffiretti lusinghieri Letter scene
♪ Andrò ramingo e solo Quartett
♪ Ha vinto amore Oracle
♪ D’oreste e d’Aiace Rage aria II
By Giambattista Varesco, based on Idoménée by Antoine Danchet and the Greek tragedy.
THE MAIN ROLES
Idomeneo, King of Crete (tenor) - Idamante, his son (soprano, tenor, castrato) - Elektra, Princess of Argos (soprano) - Ilia, Trojan princess (soprano) - Arbace, Idomeneo's advisor (tenor)
EMI, Richard Lewis, Léopold Simoneau, Sena Jurinac, Lucille Udovick diretta da John Pritchard e la Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra and Chorus.
In the beginning was a stroke of luck
On the way to Paris, Mozart had stopped in Mannheim in 1775 and got to know the local Residenz Theater, which was held by the art-loving Elector Karl August. Orchestra and singers had the reputation of being the best in Europe. Mozart was impressed and made friends with the musicians. He was all the happier when three years later he received a commission from Munich to compose an opera for Karl August, who now reigned in Munich. Without further ado, the Prince had taken the entire orchestra and the best singers with him to Munich, including Aloysia Weber, Mozart’s first love and sister of his later wife Konstanze.
The choice of the “Idoménée” as the subject of the opera was made by the prince himself. It was written by Antoine Danchet, who took the Greek tragedy of Troy’s homecomer Idomeneo as his basis and supplemented it with the love story of Idamante and Iliad. Mozart arranged for Salzburg’s chaplain Giambattista Varesco to write the libretto. The well-read Varesco was an experienced writer, but he had no theater experience and consequently wrote too much text, which Mozart had to shorten continuously. When Mozart left Salzburg for Munich in November 1780 to prepare the production, the libretto was still in the making. He instructed his father by letter to express his wishes diplomatically to Varesco and thus posterity gained a deep insight into Mozart’s work.
Gluck was the godfather
When Mozart began composing Idomeneo in 1780, he still had Gluck’s operas in his ears, which he had seen two years earlier in his unhappy Parisian year. Mozart admired the works of the German, but also saw the weaknesses of the rigidity of the classical Opera Seria. For Idomeneo, for example, he composed some elements that were foreign to the genre, such as the many ensembles (quartets and trios belonged in the opera buffa). Nevertheless, the work remains deeply rooted in the opera seria. Castratos, large choral parts, monsters, the oracle and ballets belong to its most basic elements.
The Music: Choir and Orchestra
Mozart knew about the virtuosity of the orchestra and wrote the most difficult orchestral part ever written for an opera work so far. Mozart’s father warned his son against the capriciousness of an orchestra if the work was too difficult, but Mozart was able to score with the great music. The symphonic aspect was given even more weight by the fact that it is Mozart’s great choral opera. A total of nine choral numbers have a decisive influence on this opera. Even more symphonic forms such as marches and ballets were added.
The music: The singer roles
Mozart had been engaged to fill the role of Idamante with a castrato and composed a beautiful aria for him in each act. Much to his chagrin, the castrato dal Prato did not meet Mozart’s expectations; he sang, Mozart said, “that it was a disgrace”. It was the penultimate time he composed for a castrato. For the new production in Vienna five years later he wrote a version for tenor.
Mozart would have preferred to write the role of Idomeneo for a bass voice. But the Seria Convention demanded a tenor for this type of role, and the Prince provided for the now 66-year-old Anton Raaf. The name still promised much glamour and prestige for the theater, since he had been the leading coloratura singer in Europe for decades. At an advanced age, his coloratura runs were still passable, but beyond that, he no longer had much to offer. So Mozart composed him many “cut noodles”, as he called the coloraturas.
Mozart spent much time with Raaf during the Munich months of finishing the composition and preparing for the first performance. Raaf became a fatherly friend to him and Mozart seems to have profited from his wealth of experience. At some point the spark of inspiration jumped over, and Mozart composed the revolutionary aria “Fuor del mar” for Raaf, which perhaps became something like the birth (or at least the announcement) of the romantic heroic tenor. In a letter on his collaboration with Raaf, Mozart wrote his famous sentence: “I love that the aria is as appropriate for a singer as a well-made dress”.
The roles of Elettra and Illia already show Mozart as the master of the coming years. Elettra, with her high vocal virtuosity and her abysmal mental state, is a worthy forerunner of the “Queen of the Night” and in Illia we already hear the Countess and Pamina. The two roles were entrusted to the Wendlinger sisters, who were among the best singers and, at 44 and 42 years of age respectively, were secure values.
The premiere of Idomeneo was a success, his father and sister Nannerl sat proudly in the Munich Residenztheater on January 29, 1781. But the success was not great enough to get Mozart’s career going. Although the prince was satisfied, Mozart missed his goal of becoming Kapellmeister in Munich and becoming independent of the Salzburg court. To his annoyance, the opera was given only a few times and then spread only slowly. It took a full five years until the first performance took place in Vienna. After that, it was getting quieter and Idomeneo met the fate to become an “opera for connoisseurs”. Only in the seventies of the 20th century did it enjoy a renaissance with Harnoncourt’s work.
IDOMENEO ACT I
Synopsis: In the chambers of the royal palace.
The overture is a popular concert piece. It begins with a heroic chord, which probably describes the heroic character of the the main roles. Darker passages cloud the mood somewhat, but overall Mozart wrote a captivating, virtuoso prelude that showed the orchestra in its best light and certainly captivated the audience from the very beginning.
Sinfonia – Gardiner
Synopsis: The Trojan princess Ilia laments her fate. She was captured by the Greeks in the war for Troy. During the crossing to Crete her ship got caught in a storm and she was rescued by Idamante, the son of the Greek king Idomeneo. She fell in love with him, but he is destined to marry Elettra, the princess of Argos. Remorse plagues her because of her love for an enemy of her people.
This lament aria of Ilia begins with motives of sighs. Although written in a minor key, the aria is of a tender sweetness in the first part, which is refined with delicate coloratura. The aria is in two parts, the second part is a somewhat more dramatic repetition of the first part. A cadenza with a beautiful trill concludes this piece.
In this scene we hear Lucia Popp, who is one of the best (the best?) Ilia in on record. The first part is wonderfully moving.
Padre, germani, addio – Popp
Synopsis: Idamante promises her to release the captured Trojans in order to reconcile the two peoples and win the love of the Illia.
Non ho colpa – Bartoli
Synopsis: The ship with the Trojans reaches the port and the prisoners are released, gratefully turning to the generous Idamante.
Godiam la pace – Gardiner
Elettra vows revenge
Synopsis: Elettra tritt aufgebracht zu Idamante und wirft ihm vor den Feind zu beschützen. Then Arbace joins in and announces the terrible news that Idomeneo has died in a storm off the Greek coast. Elettra realizes that Idamante, as the new king, can follow his heart and the way is clear for Ilia. Hateful, she vows to take revenge on the Trojan woman.
After the elegiac, gentle opening aria of Ilia, Mozart presents us with a wild fury as her antagonist. With a pulsating tapping of the cellos and bassoons, vibrating strings and ghost lights of flutes, Mozart opens a brilliant carpet of sound that delineates the madness of Elettra. Her voice sounds strangely hollow. With time her despair increases. The idea that the slave will share the bed with Idamante makes her blood boil. Her calls for “vendetta” and “crueltà” almost suffocate her. Her inner rage is transferred to the orchestra and the music flows seamlessly into the storm music of the next scene.
Estinto è Idomeneo … Tutto nel cor vi sento – Moser
Synopsis: In fact Idomeneo’s ship did not sink. The Greeks managed to escape to the coast in a heavy storm.
In the strings we hear the storm raging and in the flutes the wind whistles. For this storm scene Mozart composed a beautiful choral effect: a larger chorus on the scene and a smaller chorus behind the scenes respond canonically to each other, creating a stereophonic effect.
Pietà, numi, pietà – Gardiner
Idomeneo: a role not only for Mozart tenors?
Synopsis: Idomeneo can save himself to the shore with his last energy and swears that he will sacrifice the first person he sees to the gods out of gratitude.
Mozart’s tenor roles are generally not very suitable for Verdi tenors. They require a lyrically soft, agile voice that can let the highs flow without pressure and sing beautiful lines legatissimo with classical elegance, because Tamino, Belmonte and Co. are sensitive and are not devious Duca di Mantovas or heroic Manricos. Idomeneo is an exception in the Mozart repertoire. It is a role that is up to a certain point within the reach of the Verdi tenor, which is why this role has a special appeal for these singers. Placido Domingo took on the role and sang Idemeneo about twenty times on stage. Like Pavarotti, he lacks the ability to coloratura, but in the performance of this aria this is less important and Domingo sings this piece with beautiful legato and timbre.
Vedrommi intorno – Domingo
Synopsis: Idomeneo sees a lonely man and is overcome by torments of conscience. He does not know that it is Idamante who has hurried to the coast to look for the shipwrecked man. Father and son do not recognize each other, and Idomeneo turns to the unknown man. When he tells him about the tragic death of his father, Idomeneo realizes with horror that his victim is his own son. Now Idamante recognizes his father and wants to embrace him blissfully. But he is repulsed by his father and demands that he should never meet him again. Idamante does not understand this and is shocked.
This scene can be viewed through autobiographical glasses: Mozart had a close relationship with his father at the time of composition. With the death of Anna Mozart in Paris, Wolfgang became even more a point of reference for Leopold, as the lively correspondence proves. At this time, the son occasionally felt “overprotected” by his father, but their relationship was close. For Mozart, this relationship was a dominant feature of his life, and it inspired Mozart in shaping the relationship between Idomeneo and Idamante.
Mozart was a master of psychodrama. He had a tremendous understanding of people and their needs and masterfully shifted drama to music. Several times Idamante’s mood changes in this aria to show his fragile state. In the restless sixteenths we feel the despair from the very beginning. Several times the mood and tempo change, reflecting the confusion of the young man.
Il padre adorato – Bartoli
Synopsis: Cretan women appear and happily embrace the homecomers.
At this point we hear another choral piece. The brass instruments create a solemn mood and two solo chorists complement the joyful choir.
Marcia … Nettuno s’onori
IDOMENEO ACT II
Synopsis: Back at the palace, Idomeneo consults with Arbace, and the confidante advises him to send Idamante to Argos together with Elettra. When Arbace leaves, Ilia appears before the king and tells him that she considers Crete her new home and Idomeneo her father.
This scene with Idomeneo and Elettra is musically loaded with eroticism. Haven’t we heard a love aria by Elettra? Is the pain in Idomeneo’s voice more than that of a “father-in-law”? The two characters do not seem indifferent to each other. From now on another relationship drama resonates in this opera. Once again Mozart (as later in the da Ponte operas) writes out things in the music that we can only guess at in the text.
For many listeners this aria of Ilia is one of the highlights of the opera. It is the mixture of sadness and happiness that leads to the most beautiful listening experiences in Mozarts music. To the singing voice and orchestral accompaniment of the muted strings, he composed a group of concertante wind instruments, which together and with individual figures enrich the aria.
Se mai pomposo apparse … Se il padre perdei – Mathis
The famous «Fuor del mar»
Synopsis: Idomeneo is pleased and surprised by Ilia’s change of heart. He suspects that she is in love with Idamante and is full of sorrow at the suffering he brings upon the two of them.
This aria Idomeneos shows a novelty by Mozart. Although this aria is composed in a classical baroque da capo form (ABA’), such a heroic, passionate aria had never been heard by tenors before. The tenor must master long coloratura chains. Mozart composed the aria in the throat of Anton Raaff, the first Idomeneo, who was famous for his coloratura arts.
Mozart also wrote a second version for the Viennese performance, which contains fewer coloraturas (and was chosen by Pavarotti and Domingo, for example).
Juan Diego Florez surprised with his Mozart recital in 2018. His voice has darkened over the years and has become deeper. His coloraturas are (as expected) grandiose and the voice has the necessary power. A breathtaking recording!
Fuor del mar ho un mar nel seno – Florez
Jadlowker’s ornaments from the 1919 photograph are magnificent and appear to be lined up like pearls on a necklace. The trills at 2:03 and at the end are simply stunning.
Fuor del mar ho un mar nel seno – Jadlowker
Synopsis: Elettra has heard about Idomeneo’s decision and is happy about the turn of events, that she can snatch Idomeneo from his lover.
Chi mai del mio prov opiacer piu dolce! … Idol moi – Herteros
The heavenly «Placido è il mar»
Synopsis: She heads to the port for departure.
In the undulating 6/8 beat the choir sings about the calm silence of the sea. Seductively, in the style of a siren we hear the happy Elettra, a truly heavenly piece!
Sidonie sponde … placido è il mar – Martinpelto / Gardiner
Synopsis: Idamante awaits them there, and they are bid farewell by him.
An elegiac trio delights the listener. The second part is written in the tempo of Allegro and sweeps along with the sparkling conclusion and merges seamlessly into the storm.
Pria di partir, o Dio! – Simoneau · Udovich · Lewis
The revenge of the gods
Synopsis: As they are just getting on the boat, a terrible sea monster appears.
Mozart wrote an incredibly effective orchestra music for this elementary event
Qual nuovo terrore – Mackerras
Synopsis: Idomeneo turns to the gods and offers himself as a victim. Horrified, the Cretans flee from the monster.
Corriamo fuggiamo – Gardiner
IDOMENEO ACT III
Ilia’s letter scene – «Zeffiretti lusinghieri»
Synopsis: Ilia is in the royal gardens and asks the Zephyrs to tell Idamante of her love.
Mozart wrote for this letter scene the tender, dreamy cavatina “Zeffiretti lusinghieri”, which already seems to refer to the letter scene “che soave zefiretto” from Le nozze di Figaro.
Solitudini amiche … Zeffiretti lusinghieri – Cotrubas
Synopsis: Idamante is back in the palace and has decided to take up the fight against the monster and wants to say goodbye to Ilia. The two confess their love to each other.
In this piece we hear a rarity: love duets are rare in Mozart music.
Si io non moro a questi accenti
The quartett “Andrò ramingo e solo”
Synopsis: They are caught by surprise by Idomeneo and Elettra. Idomeneo demands that Idamante leave Crete without telling him the reason.
This quartet is one of Mozart’s great scenes. The contrary feelings of the four persons are virtuously brought together in this quartet. Mozart himself regarded this passage as the greatest passage in this opera.
When Mozart introduced Konstanze to his father in Salzburg and they played music together, they sang this quartet and Mozart is said to have burst into tears of emotion at this point and left the room.
Andrò ramingo e solo – Johnson / von Otter / McNair / Martinpelto
Synopsis: The monster rages on Crete. Arbace fears the fall of the kingdom. He hopes that at least Idamante can be saved. He calls on Idomeneo to speak to the people in front of the palace.
Se colà ne’ fati è scritto
Idomeneo reveals the secret
Synopsis: Together with the high priest and Arbace, Idomeneo appears before the people. The high priest tells Idomeneo about the great suffering and the many dead that the monster has already inflicted on the Cretans. He demands that Idomeneo finally offer the sacrifice to the gods. Idomeneo reveals that he must sacrifice his own son. The people react with horror
This choir is the darkest of the opera. It begins with a chromatic rise and the painful cries of the people remind one of a requiem.
O voto tremendo – Gardiner
Synopsis:The priests prepare the sacrifice.
Synopsis: Idomeneo arrives with his entourage. He prays painfully to the gods and asks for their mercy.
We hear a beautiful cantilena by Idomeneo, beautifully accompanied by pizzicati in the orchestra. It is the purest Mozart, running down the throat like balm, an aria as he usually only gave it to the female voices.
Acogli, o re del mar – Johnson
We hear this passage in a second interpretation by Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti also sang the Idomeneo on stage and on CD. The beauty of the voice beguiles, even if it did not have the Mozartian lightness of the high notes.
Acogli, o re del mar – Pavarotti
Synopsis: Then comes the news that Idamante was able to defeat the monster. Idamante is brought in with a wreath on his head. He has heard of his father’s promise of sacrifice and now understands his deeds. Idamante is ready to die and asks his father to kill him with his own hand and take care of Illia. Now Idomeneo is ready to make the sacrifice, but Illia throws herself in between.
Cecilia Bartoli sings this moving passage heavenly in the first part and burning in the second.
No, la morte io non pavento … Ma che piu tardi – Bartoli
The oracle speaks
Synopsis: When Idomeneo wants to push her away, the statue of Neptune moves and an oracle speaks to the assembled. The gods forgive Idomeneo, but not the king. If Idomeneo hands over the office to Idamante, who marries Illia, peace will reign again in the land.
Mozart uses trombones for the first time, which went out of fashion in the 18th century. He lets three of them sound majestically and powerfully behind the scenes. They already give a hint to the cemetery scene of Don Giovanni, where the three trombones will appear when the stone Commendatore appears.
Ha vinto amore – Terfel
Elettra’s grand Rage aria
Synopsis:Only Elettra rages. Driven by suicidal thoughts she leaves the place angrily.
In baroque opera, furies were not uncommon, but probably no woman had ever raged as wildly as in Mozart’s rage aria of Elettra. The untamed screams, triggered by the agony of disappointment, resound until hoarseness.
Oh ! Smania …. D’oreste e d’Aiace – Moser
It is an experience to have seen and heard this aria by Anna Netrebko. Perhaps the acuti of a dramatic coloratura soprano like Edda Moser are not to be heard, but the breadth of the Russian’s expressive possibilities demands respect.
Oh ! Smania …. D’oreste e d’Aiace – Netrebko
The festive final chorus
Synopsis: Idomeneo proclaims the will of the gods to the people. He is happy and again filled with the courage to face life. The people celebrates the new king and queen.
The piece ends with a festive final chorus.
Scenda amor – Gardiner
The original Munich version closes with a final ballet.
EMI, Richard Lewis, Léopold Simoneau, Sena Jurinac, Lucille Udovick under the direction of John Pritchard and the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra and Chorus.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “IDOMENEO” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.