Idomeneo Opera

In 1829, nearly a half-century after Idomeneo’s premiere, Mozart’s widow Constanze recalled an episode that underscores the special place the opera clearly held in its composer’s heart. The young couple was visiting Salzburg, where Mozart introduced his wife to his father for the first time with the hope of patching things up following a period of estrangement. As the family spent an evening making music together, according to Constanze, they sang the quartet from the third act of Idomeneo (“Andrò ramingo e solo”). Suddenly, Mozart became “so overwhelmed that he burst into tears and had to leave the room; it was some time before I could console him.”

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Idomeneo marked a personal and professional watershed for its creator. Mozart, whose 25th birthday coincided with the dress rehearsal (January 27, 1781), had at last received an operatic commission commensurate with his growing mastery, thanks (most likely) to his musician friends at the court of Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria. It was during an extensive and revelatory tour across Europe (between 1777 and 1779) that the young composer stopped in Mannheim, where this enthusiastic patron of the arts had built up his court orchestra into an internationally reputed ensemble. Though the permanent position Mozart longed for was not forthcoming—he had grown increasingly desperate to escape opera-poor Salzburg—the Elector commissioned him in the fall of 1780 to write the major operatic entertainment for the upcoming Carnival season.

Idomeneo was an especially exciting prospect for Mozart because of the resources he knew would be at his disposal in Munich, where Karl Theodor had recently relocated his court. The libretto was to be furnished by Giovanni Battista Varesco (1735–1805), a cleric, poet, and musician based in Salzburg. In November 1780, Mozart moved temporarily to Munich to work with the singers as he prepared Idomeneo. Because Varesco remained behind in Salzburg, the composer relied on his father, Leopold, to serve as a diplomatic go-between while he tailored the libretto to his vision—and to his practical sense of stage worthiness.

Thanks to this happy accident, the surviving correspondence from son to father gives us a fascinating glimpse into Mozart’s creative process. The letters involving Idomeneo show his fixation on detail and overall effect alike. They address such topics as the quality of the singers’ acting: for example, Mozart complained of the stand-and-sing delivery of the tenor Anton Raaff (Idomeneo would be the final role in his long career). Mozart also repeatedly emphasized the virtue of brevity and directness as he attempted to rein in Varesco’s rambling, tendentious text. Thus, he objected to the first draft for the mysterious oracle at the denouement as overwritten: “The longer [the voice] goes on, the more the audience will become aware that there’s nothing real about it. If the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet were not quite so long, it would be much more effective,” noted the composer.

Varesco adapted a pre-existing French text from the early 18th century by Antoine Dancher; it had already been set by André Campra in 1712 in the style of French Baroque opera. Though encountered relatively rarely in classical literature (most famously in The Iliad as a brave warrior), the figure of Idomeneo had become freshly attractive during the Enlightenment as a classical counterpart to the biblical narratives of Abraham and Isaac and Jephtha and his daughter. The scholar Nicholas Till has observed that such myths were valued because they dramatized the Enlightenment conviction in “the superiority of natural law to customary and religious law; for human sacrifice, as a sacramental deed, provides a religious sanction for a basic transgression against nature: murder.” Gluck, for example, whose reformist opera Mozart had encountered in Paris, showed a predilection for the Iphigenia myth, involving similar scenarios of human sacrifice, in two of his greatest works.


The operatic Idomeneo actually entails a synthetic myth that interlaces the returning warrior’s story with the figure of Elettra, who appears as a refugee from Mycenae after her brother Orestes had slain their mother Clytemnestra—still another variant of a sort of human sacrifice, though in this case not of an “innocent” victim. Dancher’s original ending was tragic: Idomeneo, having become insane, does sacrifice Idamante, and Elettra thus obtains her longed-for vengeance. The revised version set by Mozart, in contrast, ends with the triumph of both reason and love.


Idomeneo’s core conflict—the confrontation between an old order beholden to superstition and a new one motivated by love—must have resonated deeply for Mozart as he stood on the threshold of personal and artistic independence. The son-father scenario, in which many have detected a personal echo of the Wolfgang-Leopold tension, is thus just one instance in Idomeneo of the archetypal relationship of submission to a figure of authority. Others are the enslavement of the Trojan prisoners of war by the Greeks and, on the cosmic level, of mortals to the will of the gods. With Elettra, we even encounter the captivity of lovers to the emotions that rule them.

Far from representing the increasingly antiquated conventions of myth- centered opera seria, Idomeneo prompted Mozart to animate the story’s characters and situations by drawing on the musical wisdom he had accumulated to date. Into this score he poured everything he had learned: the lyrical illumination of heightened emotions from Italian opera (his preceding opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, dated from nearly a decade before); the dramatic naturalness and simplicity of the Gluckistes he had witnessed in Paris, according to which arias are anchored within a clear dramatic context—Elettra’s first aria, for example, bleeds into the ensuing storm—while the emotional resonance of the recitatives becomes amplified; but also the beautiful pomp and impressive spectacle of French Baroque opera (for the prominent choruses and ballet music and the divine interventions that erupt in all three acts: the shipwreck, the storm and sea monster, and the oracle).

Mozart similarly drew on his experience composing sacred music for chorus and soloists and on his knowledge of the symphonic orchestra, inspired by the remarkable ensemble of virtuoso players from Karl Theodor’s court (especially the woodwinds—this is Mozart’s first opera to include clarinets in his orchestra, while his use of three trombones and two horns endows the climactic oracle scene with its numinous power). As musicologist and biographer David Cairns observes, Mozart’s deployment in Idomeneo “of orchestral color for dramatic and psychological effect looks forward to the discoveries and experiments of Romanticism.”

Idomeneo’s variety of scenes and interludes elicited from Mozart music of brilliant, innovative colors. He also uses the principle of contrast to remarkable dramatic effect. Thus the oracle’s power is enhanced by its position within the larger context of the final scene, and Mozart does not hesitate to summon the sublime alongside his beautiful melodies—even if that requires imagining sonorities that might be perceived as ugly.

The title character’s entrance aria reveals his capacity to feel pity for his victim— not yet identified as his son Idamante—yet Idomeneo remains bound to the old order of blind obedience. His plight results from the warrior’s vow, which stands for his superstitious, fear-driven perspective—a fear concretely symbolized by the sea-monster that his son elects to confront. In the end, anticipating the denouement of The Magic Flute a decade later, Idomeneo’s old order yields governance to the marriage of reason and love represented by the union of Idamanate and Ilia, who herself had overcome her tribal allegiance to Priam and the Trojans. Yet Elettra rages on, the outcast who is still enslaved by passion, prefiguring the coloratura rage and untamed emotions of the Queen of the Night. Elettra exemplifies Mozart’s creative reimagining of convention (the stereotype of the Baroque rage aria). The musicologist Julian Rushton likens her final aria to an exorcism. In another sense, perhaps, Elettra is the lurking fury waiting to erupt into revolution by century’s end.

The quartet that so moved its composer during that visit to Salzburg two years after Idomeneo—“nothing in the entire opera pleases me as much as this quartet,” he wrote—is an emblem of Mozart’s perfecting of his art. It encapsulates in musico-dramatic terms the moment in the opera when its four principal characters are torn by their individual, conflicting predicaments. This quartet, writes Cairns, “marks a new tone in the tragedy, of transfigured suffering, and so prepares for the turning-point of the drama.”

Idomeneo gave Mozart “the chance to give out all that he had learned from life and art, all he had experienced of love and suffering and pity and guilt, his comprehensive understanding of the dramatic, his consciousness of unequalled powers, in an opera that was an answer to prayer.”

—Thomas May


Helen, the beautiful wife of King Menelaus of Greece, was carried off by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, triggering the Trojan War. Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother, rallied the other Greek kings and joined forces to lay siege to the city of Troy. One of Agamemnon’s allies was King Idomeneo of Crete, whose army helped to deliver a victory over the Trojans.

After ten long years of war, Idomeneo is finally on his way home. Some of his forces have already returned, bringing back Trojan captives including Priam’s daughter, princess Ilia. The ship carrying Ilia was hit by a storm and sank, but she was rescued from the waves by Idomeneo’s son, Idamante. Upon his own return from war, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus; Elettra’s brother, Orestes, took revenge on the unfaithful by killing them both. Elettra fled from their home in Argos, and is now taking refuge in Crete.

Act I

Island of Crete, c. 1200 B.C. At the palace, Ilia is grieving for her father and brothers, who were killed by the Greek army in the siege on Troy. But while she hates Idomeneo, she has fallen in love with his son, Idamante, who has ruled Crete in his father’s absence (“Padre, germani, addio!”–Father, brothers, farewell!). Although Idamante proclaims his love for her, Ilia, cannot bring herself to admit her feelings for him (Non ho colpa–I am not guilty). As a gesture of goodwill, Idamante releases the Trojan captives; they join the Cretans in rejoicing this newfound peace (“Godiam la pace”–Let us enjoy peace). The king’s advisor, Arbace, brings the news that the king’s returning fleet was shipwrecked in a storm and that Idomeneo has drowned. Elettra does not approve of Idamante’s decision to free the prisoners, and upon hearing the news of Idomeneo’s ruin, she realizes that her aspirations of marriage have been similarly dashed (“Tutte nel cor vi sento”–In my heart I feel you, Furies of bitter Hades).

Idomeneo Synopsis

On the coast, sailors make their way ashore, begging the gods to show mercy (“Pietà, Numi pieta”–Ye gods, have mercy!). As the storm subsides, Idomeneo staggers onto the sand alone. Spared a watery grave by Nettuno (Neptune), god of the sea, Idomeneo laments his vow to sacrifice to the god the first person he meets on land. Plagued with guilt, he imagines the ghost of his innocent victim (“Vedrommi, intorno”–I shall see about me a lamenting ghost). Eventually he sees a man approaching, his own son, Idamante. After ten years, the two men do not initially recognize each other, but when Idomeneo realizes the horrible truth of his son’s fate, he rushes away from their reunion, leaving Idamante—who knows nothing of the promise to Nettuno—terribly confused. (“Il padre adorato”–Beloved father). The surviving troops and their families rejoice over the return of their king (“Nettuno s’onori”–Let Neptune be honored).

Act II

Idomeneo opera synopsis

Idomeneo looks to Arbace for advice as to how he might spare his son’s life. They agree that another victim could be sacrificed if Idamante is in exile; to get him out of the country, he will be sent to escort Elettra back to Argos. Idomeneo meets with Ilia, who is comforted by his kind words to her. Ilia declares that since she has lost everything, she accepts Crete as her new home (“Se il padre perdei”–Though I have lost my father). Idomeneo begins to suspect that she is in love with Idamante, and it dawns on him that all three of them will be victims of the gods (“Fuor del mar”–Having escaped from the sea). It seems that only Elettra, who has heard that Idamante is to escort her home to Argos, is happy: she sees that she might yet win his heart, once she has gotten him away from her rival (“Idol mio”–My dearest).

Before Idamante and Elettra can set sail for Argos, a storm breaks out and an enormous monster emerges from the sea, a sign of Nettuno’s fury (“Qual nuovo terrore!”–What new terror!). The people of Crete are terrified, and without divulging his secret vow, Idomeneo confesses that it is he who has caused the god’s displeasure (“Corriamo, fuggiamo”–Let us run, let us fly).


Idomeneo Opera Length

Idomeneo Opera

Ilia hopes that the breezes will carry her message of love to Idamante (“Zeffiretti lusinghieri”–flattering breezes). When he arrives to say that he is going to fight the monster, she finally admits her love directly. Idomeneo and Elettra find them together, and Idomeneo (still unable to reveal his reasons) commands again that his son leave Crete. Idamante resolves to do his father’s bidding, and they each express their individual sorrows (“Andrò ramingo, e solo”–I will go, wandering alone). Arbace reports that the people are demanding that the king deliver them from the monster, and he laments that Crete has become full of sadness (“Sventurata Sidon!”–Poor, unhappy Cydonia).

The High Priest describes the destruction and death caused by the monster (“Volgi intorno lo sguardo”–Look around you) and demands that Idomeneo name the victim who must be sacrificed to appease the gods. The king confesses that the victim is his son, Idamante. The people are wracked with grief (“O voto tremendo”–Oh, dreadful vow). The king and his priests prepare for the forthcoming sacrifice (“Accogli, o re del mar”–Receive our offering, oh king of the sea) but are interrupted by news that Idamante has slain the monster. Idamante at last understands why his father has been cold to him: out of love, not hatred. He demands that the sacrifice proceed, as this is the price for peace in Crete. Ilia volunteers to take his place. As Idomeneo is about to sacrifice his son, the voice of Jove is heard proclaiming that if Idomeneo will yield the throne to Idamante and Ilia, the gods will be satisfied. Everyone rejoices except Elettra, who is plunged into despair at the prospect of her beloved in the arms of her rival (“D’Oreste, d’Ajace”–Orestes and Ajax).

Idomeneo opera youtube

Idomeneo agrees to give up the throne, and pronounces his blessing on the union of his son and the Trojan princess. The chorus celebrates the happy couple (“Scenda Amor, scenda Imeneo”–Descend love, descend god of marriage).