Go inside this production of Idomeneo with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
PLACE AND TIME
Ancient Crete, after the Trojan War
BEFORE THE OPERA BEGINS
A hero of the Trojan War, King Idomeneo of Crete, is sailing home to be reunited with Idamante, his son. They have not seen each other since the war began many years before. When a storm endangers his ship, Idomeneo begs Neptune to let him land safely. Neptune agrees only when the king promises to sacrifice the first person he sees upon his return.
Ilia, daughter of Troy’s King Priam, is a captive in Crete. Having been nearly shipwrecked, she was saved by Idamante, whom she now loves. Also on the island is Idamante’s fiancée, princess Elettra (Electra) of Argos, who sought refuge after the murder of her mother, Clytemnestra.
Ilia knows that, in loving a Cretan, she has betrayed her father and family. Still, she cannot bring herself to despise Idamante. He informs her that Crete’s Trojan prisoners will be given their freedom. Ilia is shocked to hear Idamante confess his love; she reminds him who his father is – and who hers was. Idamante answers that the gods compel him to love her. He orders that the Trojan prisoners be set free. Trojans and Cretans are rejoicing at the dawn of a new, peaceful era when Arbace, the king’s confidant, brings word that Idomeneo has drowned. Everyone departs in distress but Elettra, who is irate: with Idomeneo dead, Idamante will surely marry her rival.
Idomeneo’s sailors are heard from afar, begging the gods for mercy. The sea turns calm, and Idomeneo finally appears. He reflects on the tranquility of his surroundings, but is horrified at the fate awaiting his victim. When he encounters Idamante, only gradually does each discover the other’s identity. Overwhelmed by despair, Idomeneo rejects Idamante’s embrace and rushes away. The prince is left confused and distraught. Idomeneo is soon welcomed home, as the Cretans join in praising Neptune.
Arbace is shocked to learn of Idomeneo’s vow, and that Idamante must be the sacrifice. Advising the king to send his son away, Arbace also urges that the Cretans be told nothing of the vow. Idomeneo determines that Idamante will serve as Elettra’s escort for her voyage home to Argos. When Ilia appears, Idomeneo expresses his concern for her and offers friendship. Ilia feels that in Idomeneo she has found a new father. She leaves him to his thoughts, which have become a storm he compares to a raging sea.
Elettra is ecstatic at the thought that, once away from her rival, she will succeed in making Idamante hers. She joins the Cretans as they wish for a calm sea and gentle breezes for the couple’s journey. Idomeneo has just bidden his son and Elettra farewell when a terrible storm ensues and a monster emerges from the sea. Idomeneo cries to Neptune to take him, for he is the guilty one. He refuses to offer the god an innocent victim. The Cretans are terrified as they try to escape the monster.
In a moment of solitude, Ilia thinks of Idamante and asks the breezes to carry her love to him. She is agitated when the prince approaches, and stunned when he reveals his intention to fight the monster, even if it means his own death. At last Ilia confesses her love. When Idomeneo appears with Elettra, the king begs Idamante to leave Crete. Idamante vows to wander the world until death claims him; Ilia swears to follow; Idomeneo longs to die; and Elettra wonders when she will be avenged. Arbace informs Idomeneo that the Cretans are calling for him to speak to them. Arbace laments the dire situation that has befallen Crete. The high priest of Neptune tells Idomeneo of the devastation inflicted on the Cretans by the monster. Now Neptune must have what is rightfully his. The king reveals that the sacrificial victim will be his own son. The high priest and the people are horrified.
In the temple of Neptune, the prayers of Idomeneo and the priests are interrupted by cries of victory: Idamante has slain the monster. When the prince appears, he begs his father to fulfill the vow and declares himself unafraid to die. As the king is about to kill his son, Ilia offers herself to be sacrificed in Idamante’s place. Suddenly Neptune’s voice is heard, proclaiming the triumph of love: Idomeneo will abdicate and Idamante will rule, with Ilia as his consort. Exploding with rage and despair, Elettra calls on the Furies to end her agony in death. Idomeneo presents Idamante and Ilia to the people, and expresses his joy at their ascension to the throne. The Cretans ask the gods to bless the pair.
A number of great operas are seen comparatively rarely at Lyric, for the simple reason that assembling the right cast, production, and conductor is a daunting challenge. Mozart’s Idomeneo is a good example, heard here in only two previous seasons. I’m thrilled that this astounding work is returning to our stage for the first time in more than 20 years.
We could view Idomeneo as Mozart’s Greek tragedy. Certainly this can also be considered the first truly great opera of his all-too-brief career, written in classic opera seria style. We have extraordinarily passionate characters, expressing their desperate, life-or-death conflicts in music of unforgettable beauty and eloquence.
Idomeneo is the only one of Mozart’s great operatic masterpieces that our music director, Sir Andrew Davis, has never conducted. It is a source of great satisfaction to Andrew to be leading his long-awaited first Idomeneo. He is, of course, one of the world’s great Mozartians, possessing a superb command of the architecture of a work built on this grand scale.
This season’s Idomeneo was created by the late director/designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for the Metropolitan Opera. Very much in keeping with the spirit of the work, Ponnelle constructed a riveting visual fusion of the ancient world and the world of the Enlightenment. It provides a perfect frame for communicating this work’s cumulative musical and dramatic power.
It’s always a pleasure to welcome to Lyric a cast made up of such exceptional artists, beginning with Matthew Polenzani in the title role. As a Ryan Opera Center alumnus, Matthew is “one of our own.” All of us at Lyric take pride in the stature he has attained among today’s most outstanding artists. Vocally, Idomeneo requires an extraordinary combination of grandeur and agility, as enormous subtlety both musically and textually. The character is the heart of this piece; his agony breaks our hearts, and the characterization is the most significant lever in ensuring that this masterpiece comes to full life onstage. Matthew has demonstrated internationally he is the Idomeneo of our time – a masterful singer and a profoundly moving actor.
Onstage with Matthew are four of today’s most dazzling Mozart interpreters, including two other Ryan Opera Center alumni who have gone on to major careers. Each is making an important role debut in this production: Erin Wall (Elettra), who has previously dazzled Lyric audiences with the heroines of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and The Abduction from the Seraglio; and David Portillo (Arbace), singing his most important Mozart role at Lyric to date.
After her triumphant Lyric debut in last season’s Turandot, we’re delighted to welcome back Chicago native Janai Brugger as Ilia, one of the most touching and captivating of all Mozart heroines. Partnering her as Idamante, in what we can expect to be an outstandingly successful Lyric debut, is Angela Brower, the American mezzo-soprano who has enchanted audiences throughout Europe.
Idomeneo’s return to Lyric is an occasion for rejoicing. I’m thrilled that you’re here to share it with us.
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Idomeneo is Mozart’s first mature opera, and it remains one of his most profound and musically satisfying. Although its premiere took place on January 27, 1781, just after the composer’s 25th birthday, the opera provides one of Mozart’s most searching explorations of some cherished Mozartean themes: the triumph of love over hatred, and of reconciliation and mercy over revenge and rigidity.
Unlike most of his best-loved works, it is an opera seria, with no admixture of comedy; and although it contains haunting stories of romantic and familial love, it is also a political opera, whose three acts all end with choral singing and with a statement about how the choices of the characters affect the political community. In both of these respects, it has strong links to La clemenza di Tito, one of Mozart’s last two operas; but Idomeneo’s libretto is far better written, and Mozart got a chance to write all of its music, including the recitatives, which time pressure prevented him from writing himself in the later work.
In 1780 Mozart and librettist Giambattista Varesco were commissioned by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, to write an opera for a court performance. Mozart seems to have had a key role in the choice of the subject. Varesco’s libretto was based on a French drama by Antoine Danchet, which had already been turned into an opera by another composer in 1712. Many letters between Mozart and his father Leopold inform us about the opera’s development. We learn that key roles were fitted to singers whom Mozart preferred, and that the libretto and music required, ultimately, many cuts in order to be suitable for the court performance.
The work premiered at the Cuvilliés Theater in Munich. Mozart was not happy with many of the cuts, and today the opera is typically performed virtually uncut. A second performance in Vienna in 1786 occasioned a major rewrite of some scenes, the restoration of many cuts, and a total recasting of the role of Idamante: sung by a castrato soprano at the premier, the role was adapted for a tenor in the Vienna version. Today most productions return to the original scoring, giving the role Idomeneo: The Realm of Love By Martha C. Nussbaum to a female mezzo-soprano. This permits the close harmonies in the Ilia-Idamante duet that are among the opera’s most moving effects, and the exploration of Idamante’s gender-atypical gentleness. Like Sesto in Clemenza and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, he is a tender, loving type of male who eschews the common male competition for honor and domination (while still slaying the sea-serpent!), so it seems fitting, both dramatically and musically, that we honor through this casting Mozart’s critique of traditional gender norms.
The founding theorists of opera, during the 17th century, were obsessed by the Greeks and the Romans and by the genre of tragedy, since they were attempting to wrest vocal music away from ecclesiastical control and to create a secular genre of music drama that allowed the fortunes of individual characters to take center stage (as they could not in religious choral music). They also appropriated the Greek tragic idea of a universe in which morality and justice do not reign and individuals must wrestle with blind amoral forces, creating love and justice (if at all) from within themselves.
It is no surprise that Mozart followed this lead. Committed throughout his adult life to the Enlightenment ethos of the Freemasons, which replaced religious authority with secular ideas of brotherhood, equality, and freedom, Mozart clearly found in Greek and Roman sources the opportunity to create a political universe in which the gods are not moral, and in which human beings must take upon themselves the task of creating a decent political community. Choosing a story in which the gods demand a ridiculous and immoral sacrifice, he seems to present a critique of traditional religion (perhaps even alluding critically to the Abraham-Isaac story?).
But in keeping with his Masonic optimism about the power of human freedom and reason, the world of Idomeneo is not the Greek tragic universe of blind fate. The opera’s universe is an ultimately untragic place in which people really can chart their own course, and human reason proves capable of surmounting and replacing divine harshness.
The great 19th-century musicologist and critic Eduard Hanslick judged Idomeneo inferior to Mozart’s more “Shakespearean” operas (his comparison), which, like Shakespeare’s tragedies, contain a mixture of tragedy and comedy. Hanslick was shortsighted. Although it is true that Idomeneo has no comic scenes or characters, it is its own remarkable mixture – of tragedy with happy love story – and indeed a story that ends up subverting and rewriting the world of tragedy, bringing about peace and reconciliation on the political plane as well.
The opera is set in the aftermath of the bitter Trojan War, which, as Homer tells us, brought “thousandfold pains” even on the victorious Greeks, and more or less wiped out the Trojans. Ilia, one of the last of the Trojan royal family, is a captive along with other prisoners, “bereft of father and brothers.” Able at first to see the world only in terms of war and enmity, she feels at first a terrible conflict between her loyalty to her family and her love for the Greek prince Idamante. Quickly, however, the drama begins to reshape the world: Idamante has what we might call a more Mozartean view of loyalties, insisting that reconciliation can bring warring sides together in harmony and love. He frees the Trojan prisoners: “Now I will break their bonds and give them consolation.” As the opera progresses, it is Idamante’s capacity for love (soon joined by his father’s) that propels the plot, bringing it ultimately to its happy conclusion.
The central conceit of the plot is Idomeneo’s promise, in return for his rescue from the storm, to sacrifice the first person he sees on landing, to the greedy god of the sea. Because that person is his beloved son, a terrible calamity seems in store. The sea-god’s rigidity is depicted already in the overture – along, however, with a chromatic theme working against it, which we come to associate with human initiatives against cruel fate.
Greek tragedies sometimes have happy endings – Aristotle preferred this sort – but only by sheer luck, some intervening deus ex machina. In Idomeneo, by contrast, it is the evolving story of the power of love that prepares the way for the final scene. Idomeneo insists that his inner human nature rebels against the deed commanded by impersonal Nature. And all the human characters join in chorus to criticize the sea-god’s behavior: “Abate your anger, your rigidity!” In a very un-Greek and rather Masonic denouement, the gods yield to the power of love and reason. A Voice (whose?) announces that “Love has triumphed!” and that the new political community will be ruled by a loving male-female duo, Ilia and Idamante (prefiguring the dual initiation of Pamina and Tamino at the end of The Magic Flute). Instead of a monarchy based upon fear, we have a new regime, based on freedom, flexibility, reciprocity, and love.
But how did we reach this point? Mozart’s subtle and original musical language shows us what the libretto itself could not, revealing what tenderness and flexibility can be and do. It is remarkable that in all of Mozart’s other major works there is no happy duet between two truly loving lovers. Either the lovers are in conflict (Susanna and Figaro, the Count and Countess), or they are ill-matched (Sesto and Vitellia) or the love is based upon deception (Don Giovanni and Zerlina, the two pairs of lovers in Così fan tutte). Ilia and Idamante are the exception. Idamante has been a tender peace-loving lover from the beginning; Ilia, who initially sees things in terms of implacable opposition between enemies, gradually comes to see the world his way, and in the beautiful “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” (“Gently caressing breezes”) that opens Act Three, her long, delicate phrases are musical caresses sent through the breeze to her lover. When he arrives, they sing the remarkable duet “S’io non moro a questi accenti” (“If I do not die at these words”), in which the two voices, in close-knit harmony, express the joy of trusting reciprocity looking forward to happiness: “Ah, our happiness overcomes the cruel anguish we have suffered. Our passion conquers all.” Although this unique duet precedes the yielding of the gods, it prefigures it, and its exemplary beauty causes it: love’s nature makes Nature yield.
Of equal importance is the opera’s delicate depiction of filial and paternal love, in the whole unfolding of the Idamante-Idomeneo relationship, and in Ilia’s gradual opening toward trust in her former enemy as a father, in the exquisite Act Two aria “Se il padre perdei” (“If I have lost my father”).
So far we have left out one of the major characters: Elettra, who has some of the opera’s most dramatic and dazzling music, in the two towering revenge arias “Tutte nel cor vi sento” (“In my heart I feel you all”), addressing the Furies, goddesses of revenge, and, near the opera’s end, “D’Oreste d’Aiace” (“Of Orestes and Ajax”), again referring to her internal Furies. And it was fitting to leave her isolated, because she isolates herself. She never changes, nor does she respond to any other character. In her single-minded dedication to vengeance and the Furies, in her renunciation of “love, mercy, and compassion,” she belongs to the old cruel world and refuses the lure of the new world. As she finishes her first aria, the ensuing music of the storm outside is very similar to the music she has just been singing about her insides – Mozart’s way of showing that she embodies the older world of cruelty and rigidity, untampered by tenderness or gentleness.
Elettra’s music is spectacular but ultimately solipsistic and hard, even ugly. Her arias, both the early and the late, have a breathless character that a good singer will mimic (with, of course, supreme breath control!). Revenge, after all, takes your breath away. Retributive anger operates as the opposite of Ilia’s tender love, which extends itself in long breeze-like phrases. And in her final aria, sung after the Voice has announced the triumph of Love, Elettra simply sings herself to death. Singing of suicide (“Alecto’s torch brings me death…or a sword shall end my pain”), she verges on vocal collapse, with the ugly cackling pyrotechnics of the aria’s end. And then, done with the aria, she simply does collapse, in most productions and in Lyric’s – killed, apparently, by her own exhausting emotions of anger and hatred. Her collapse is sad, because Mozart lets us see that she does have a softer side. In her first aria we encounter a more delicate theme as she bids farewell to her former emotions of “love, mercy, and compassion.” And in Act Two, briefly, she sings an aria expressing love – before, disappointed, she reverts to a harsh retributivism.
Joseph Kerman, the author of Opera as Drama, says that Elettra is far from the center of the work, a peripheral character – and in a way this is true, but it does not show that she is irrelevant. Like the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, she is an antitype, the exemplar of an older realm with no reciprocity and no compassion, and what Mozart shows us is that this way of being in the world leads ultimately to exhaustion and burnout. Ilia and Idamante, by contrast, lead forward to personal and political regeneration and to happiness.
Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at The University of Chicago, has also taught at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford universities. Her recent book, Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles and Regret, appeared in 2017 and is co-authored with her colleague Saul Levmore. Her newest book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, appeared in July 2018 from Simon and Schuster. In 2016 she received the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.