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ClassicsOnline Home » MOZART, W.A.: Idomeneo (Streit, Gulin, Tamar, San Carlo Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Guidarini)
The notable musicologist Alfred Einstein commented that Idomeneo is ‘one of those works that even a genius of highest rank, like Mozart, could write only once in his life’. Every page of the score deserves appreciation. Of the many exceptional arias and ensembles, especially notable is the third act quartet ‘Andrò ramingo e solo’, one of the most moving concerted numbers in any Mozart opera. This recording is based on the original 1781 Munich version, without the extended ballet but including some music cut by Mozart before the première.
By Stephen Eddins
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Idomeneo, re di Creta, K. 366
Dramma per musica in three acts
Libretto by Giambattista Varesco based on Antoine Danchet’s Idomenée
Idomeneo – Kurt Streit
Ilia – Ángeles Blancas Gulín
Elettra – Iano Tamar
Idamante – Sonia Ganassi
Arbace – Jörg Schneider
Il Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno – Dario Magnabosco
La voce dell’Oracolo – Deyan Vatchkov
Two Cretan People – Antonietta Bellone, Lucia Gaeta
Two Trojan People – Carmine Durante, Carmine Mennella
Chorus Soloists – Cristina Casillo, Silvia Cialli, Bruno Iacullo, Antonella Sdoia, Paola Tedesco, Giuseppe Valentino
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Carlo Theatre, Naples
Chorus-master: Ciro Visco
Conductor: Marco Guidarini
First performed at the Alte Residenztheater (Cuvilliés Theater), Munich, on 29th January 1781
This opera is going to be charmante, it will bring you great honour…who should think that such great things can come out of such a small head.
This opera is going to be charmante, it will bring you great honour…who should think that such great things can come out of such a small head.
The rehearsals which took place during December 1780 and January 1781 for Mozart’s new opera Idomeneo must have been pretty impressive; the Elector of Bavaria, Karl Theodor, was present at one of them and praised it highly—no bad thing since the première would shortly take place in his own Court Theatre.
Mozart was delighted to receive the commission for the piece, to be composed to celebrate a carnival in the Bavarian capital, which was probably the initiative of Joseph Anton, Count Seeau, the Opera Intendant at the Munich Court. Life in his native Salzburg had become stultifying for Mozart and he relished the opportunity to get away for a while. He left on 5 November 1780, hoping privately that he might gain a permanent place at the Court of Elector Karl Theodor. This was not to be and two months later, after three successful performances of Idomeno, he made a circuitous and reluctant journey home.
The libretto of Idomeneo was prepared by the Abbate Varesco, a poet and musician resident in Salzburg and chaplain to the Archbishop; he based his adaptation on an earlier work in French by Danchet, which well suited the preferences of Munich’s cultural élite. Indeed, whilst Mozart’s Idomeneo is basically an Italian-style piece, following some of the conventions of the opera seria, it retains a distinctly French flavour, harking back to aspects of the musical and dramatic world of Christoph Willibald Gluck and his contemporaries. Also, by the popular demand of Munich audiences, a series of divertissements had to be danced during the opera; this, too, was a very French tradition which continued into the nineteenth century. Wagner, for example, was required to adapt Tannhäuser by extending a ballet sequence for its first Paris production, as was Verdi for Macbeth.
Mozart’s relationship with Varesco was not an easy one at this time. Not only was it inconvenient to have sections of text arriving in Munich by coach from Salzburg on an irregular basis, but the young composer had very specific ideas about the tight, clear libretto he wanted to set. Leopold, Wolfgang’s father, was also living in Salzburg and acted as intermediary between composer and writer—an unenviable position under the circumstances. Gradually, and after considerable delays, the text was shaped in the way Mozart required and then the work progressed quickly. The composition and rehearsal period was carefully planned, involving all who had a part to play in staging the opera: stage managers, designers and builders of scenery, dancers, orchestral musicians, the chorus and, by no means least, the soloists. In this respect, Mozart was fortunate in being able to write for voices that he knew, even if they were not necessarily the finest available and, as composition progressed, he found the opportunity to tailor and adapt his music to the singers’ capabilities. Always aware of dramatic effect, during rehearsals Mozart was ruthless in rejecting numbers that he had already composed for the Munich performances, when he thought that to do so would improve the pace and narrative; thus, when first seen, Idomeneo was a shorter opera than it might have been—though still of good length. Mozart’s extensive correspondence from this period documents these changes in some detail; fortunately much of the cut music survived and has been re-instated in later productions.
The rôle of Idomeneo himself was taken by veteran tenor Anton Raaff, whose vocal prime was past. But Mozart’s skill ensured that his music sounded virtuosic whilst remaining within Raaff’s now-limited range. The first Idamante, Vincenzo dal Prato, a castrato whose inexperience needed much encouragement, was not so fortunate and did little credit to his own performance. Two magnificent sopranos took the rôles of Ilia and Elettra; they were the sisters-in-law Dorothea and Elisabeth Wendling, who brought real pathos and drama to their interpretations, much to the composer’s satisfaction. The première was delayed by the need for extra rehearsals, the last of which took place on Mozart’s 25th birthday, 27 January 1781. Two days later Idomeneo was presented for the first time to an admiring public and a delighted Elector—all the effort had paid off and what is now regarded as Mozart’s first opera of genius had finally taken to the stage.
All the effort…for three performances…Later in 1781, after finally moving to Vienna, Mozart considered the possibility of adapting the music quite radically and bringing further French influences to bear on his score of Idomeneo, as well as using a completely fresh text. This would have necessitated altering the voice range of some of the characters, including changes for Idomeneo to a bass and Idamante to a tenor, according to the preferred French tradition. Perhaps, as he was distracted by other opportunities, these ideas came to nothing but he was able to include numbers from the opera in concerts in and around Vienna, hoping that they would excite sufficient interest to lead to full performances in the Austrian capital. On 13 March 1786, by which date he had added Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Der Schauspieldirektor to his operatic output (and only two months before the first staging of Le nozze di Figaro) Mozart finally conducted a single concert presentation of Idomeneo at the Auersperg Palace in Vienna. Then, for over twenty years, it disappeared from sight and sound.
This one Austrian performance demanded major alterations to the Munich score, the most radical being the conversion of Idamante from castrato to tenor. Mozart reworked several of the numbers, deleted some sections and composed fresh music to accommodate the new singers. Most importantly, these changes comprised a new tenor aria at the opening of the second act, the omission of Arbace’s aria a little later, a fresh duet for Idamante and Ilia in Act 3 and yet another loss for Arbace by the cutting of his florid third act aria. In addition, Idomeneo’s second act Fuor del mar was simplified and a fair quantity of recitative was removed. (Most subsequent performances have also reduced or entirely omitted the ballet sequences, as seemingly preferred by modern audiences.) The resulting Vienna version with tenor has been popularised by several productions during the last seventy years, though it is usually the Munich Idomeneo, (with a mezzo, not castrato Idamante!) that is heard in the world’s opera houses today.
After Mozart’s death Idomeneo was seldom performed outside Germany and Austria but some further recognition was achieved in 1902 when a concert version took place in Paris. Other German productions led to an extraordinary 1931 adaptation of both libretto and music by Richard Strauss which is occasionally performed but which must remain a curiosity rather than a valid version of Mozart’s opera. Also in 1931, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari produced his own arrangement of Idomeneo for a production in Munich to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the première. The first British performance took place in Glasgow in 1934 but it was not until 1951 that it was presented professionally in England for the first time—at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conducted by Fritz Busch. This was basically the Vienna version, which has remained popular at Glyndebourne and has been presented in several different productions there during the last sixty years. In the United States Idomeneo was first performed for the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood in 1947 but had to wait until 1982 to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, when Luciano Pavarotti took the title rôle.
Every page of the score deserves mention and appreciation, but critics have commented particularly on the orchestration devised by Mozart for Idomeneo; of importance is his innovative use of clarinets (for the first time in any of his opera scores) and of horns. His use of a leitmotif representing ‘Idamante’ and ‘sacrifice’ has also been noted, first appearing as it does in the overture and recurring throughout the opera at appropriate moments. Of the many exceptional arias and ensembles, especially worthy of comment is the third act quartet Andrò ramingo e solo, one of the most moving concerted numbers in any of Mozart’s operas.
The production consists principally of the original Munich version, but without the extended ballet. It also includes some sections of music cut by Mozart before the first performance and excludes others that were heard on that occasion. Following convention, Idamante is sung by a mezzo-soprano, Sonia Ganassi. Also starring in this international cast are American tenor Kurt Streit, who has made something of a speciality of singing Idomeneo—certainly Raaff cannot have sounded as good as this. Ilia’s gentle, lyrical rôle is taken by Ángeles Blancas Gulín (daughter of the late dramatic soprano Ángeles Gulín) and Elettra, surely one of Mozart’s most dramatic soprano creations (second only to the Queen of the Night in Zauberflöte?), is portrayed by Georgian soprano Iano Tamar.
As the notable musicologist Alfred Einstein averred, Idomeneo is ‘one of those works that even a genius of highest rank, like Mozart, could write only once in his life.’
With acknowledgments to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera and The New Kobbé’s Opera Book
The action takes place on the island of Crete, following the Trojan Wars.
 The overture
Scene 1: In the royal palace—Ilia’s apartments.
 The Princess Ilia, daughter of King Priam, has been taken prisoner by Idomeneo, King of Crete, during the wars. Sorrowful at her ignominious fate, she nevertheless loves Idomeneo’s son, Prince Idamante, but fears that he in turn loves Elettra, a Greek princess (daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra), and so cannot reciprocate her feelings.
 Ilia bids a distant farewell to her countrymen, regretting the love she bears for an enemy of her homeland.
 Idamante approaches; he tells her that his father is safe and that his ship has been seen near the coast. As an act of gratitude, Idamante will set free the Trojan prisoners. He gently expresses his love for Ilia, sentiments which she rejects.
 He maintains that he has committed no wrong and blames his suffering on the gods, urging Ilia to accept his word.
 The Trojan prisoners are brought in and Idamante releases them gladly, hoping that harmony will prevail between their two nations.
 The prisoners praise Idamante for his noble act and greet peace and love in celebration of their freedom.
 Elettra loves Idamante but is roused to fury by the release of the prisoners; he attempts to calm her but Arbace enters with the news of a shipwreck in which Idomeneo is feared to have perished.
 Elettra’s anger is unabated as she sees that, if the king is dead, Idamante will finally turn his affections towards Ilia.
Scene 2: A stormy sea shore, strewn with the wreckage of a ship
 Rescued sailors beg the gods for mercy from the storm.
 Idomeneo, also rescued, comes ashore; the sailors leave him quietly alone. At the height of the storm he made a vow to the god Neptune that he would sacrifice the first living creature he meets on land if his own life were spared—a vow he now regrets but knows he must keep.
 Idomeneo has a vision of the innocent victim he has condemned to death, a sacrifice that will ever haunt him.
 He sees a man approaching—the man who must die; it is none other than Idamante, searching for his father after the shipwreck. They do not immediately recognise each other but it is soon clear that Idomeneo must make the terrible sacrifice of his own son. When the king dismisses Idamante from his presence he cannot understand his father’s reaction and fears a tragic outcome.
 Idamante is distraught at his adored father’s apparent rejection and fears that he will die of uncomprehending grief.
 Processional March
 In a stirring chorus praising the god Neptune, Cretan women join the warriors in thanks for their safe return after the storm.
Scene 1: Apartments in the royal palace
 Idomeneo tells his confidant Arbace of his terrible predicament—the vow to Neptune which has resulted in his obligation to kill his own son. Arbace advises that Idamante should leave Greece forthwith and take Elettra back to Argos, thus escaping his terrible fate. Ilia expresses her gratitude that Idomeneo has returned safely to Crete after the storm and she rejoices in her newly-gained liberty.
 She tells him of her contentment in the fair land of Crete and, far from her homeland, Ilia now happily regards Idomeneo as a new-found father.
 Idomeneo is troubled by her tender words for surely she, too, is now bound up in the ongoing tragedy of the sacrifice and Idamante’s planned departure.
 Saved from the storm by Neptune’s costly intervention, Idomeneo now sees the turbulence of his troubled mind as a dearer penalty to pay.
 Elettra muses joyfully on her departure for Argos with Idamante, the man she loves.
 She anticipates a serene life with him in which they will be far from her rival, Ilia.
 At the opening of an orchestral march, Elettra prepares to board the ship for Argos.
 She bids farewell to the port of Sidon as she makes ready for her departure.
Scene 2: The Port of Sidon
 Elettra joins the chorus in extolling the gentle breezes that will carry them to their destination.
 Idomeneo urges Idamante to leave immediately and to bring back with him the virtues of heroic deeds and benevolent kingship, when eventually he returns to
 Before leaving, Idamante and Elettra bid a gentle, sad farewell to their king, who wishes them joy; but in undertones father and son reveal their troubled hearts. Idamante thinks lovingly of Ilia while Idomeneo regrets the fate that has forced this cruel parting.
 A terrible storm suddenly breaks out as a monster emerges from the sea. As they beg for mercy, the people do not understand whose sin has given cause for Neptune’s anger.
 Idomeneo reveals that the responsibility is his alone and seeks to pay for his sin; but he fails to acknowledge that it is Idamante whom he has condemned to die by his actions.
 As the people make their escape from the monster, the storm becomes ever more terrifying.
Scene 1: The garden of the palace
 Ilia is lonely and sorrowful without Idamante.
 She bids the gentle zephyrs, the plants and the flowers to bear a message of love to him.
 Suddenly she sees Idamante approaching, but is uncertain what to say. He asks for her forgiveness before he battles against the monster, uncertain whether he
will survive the ordeal. He professes his love for her, as she does to him, urging him to return to her when he is victorious.
 Their days of sorrow are past and their shared love is paramount.
 But Ilia and Idamante are discovered together by Idomeneo and Elettra. The prince begs his father to reveal why he has spurned and rejected him, only to receive a dismissive response; and Elettra perceives Idamante’s perfidy in truly loving Ilia.
 In an extended quartet the four characters express their feelings. Idamante grieves at his father’s coldness; Ilia pledges to remain faithful and joins him in urging Idomeneo to be more generous of heart; the king himself seeks death and condemns Neptune for his cruelty and Elettra, still consumed with jealousy, seeks vengeance.
 Arbace laments over the misery of the city of Sidon and, without the gods’ intervention, foresees Crete’s destruction.
 If, indeed, Crete has been at fault, then it should suffer at the hands of the gods—but at least may the king and the young prince be spared.
Scene 2: A large square in front of the palace
 The High Priest confronts Idomeneo with the news that the monster has brought death and terrible destruction to the country. He implores the king to reveal
who the victim is to be and thus pacify Neptune’s fury; distraught, Idomeneo finally admits that it is to be Idamante.
 The High Priest and the people are horrified that the king should thus have to slay his own innocent son.
Scene 3: The Temple of Neptune
 Idomeneo and the priests enter the temple during a brief orchestral march.
 They prepare for the sacrifice of the victim, as Idomeneo implores Neptune to restore peace and harmony to their country.
 A fanfare and a sudden shout are heard in the distance as Arbace reveals that the monster has been killed by Idamante. The people and the country are safe from danger.
 Idamante is led in by guards and priests, not as a victor but as a sacrificial victim; he now understands his father’s dismissive coldness and is proud to die for the people. Idomeneo despairs but is powerless to intervene, whilst Idamante is reconciled to his fate and anticipates his eternal repose in death for the good of his country.
 Idamante awaits the fatal stroke; but as father and son bid each other tender farewells, Ilia enters and offers herself as the sacrificial victim. Idamante refuses to allow it, but Ilia runs to the altar.
 As she kneels, and prepares to die in his place, the Voice of the Oracle is distantly heard. Ilia’s willing offer of self-sacrifice has caused love to triumph over evil; Idomeneo shall no longer reign as king and Idamante shall succeed him, with Ilia as his consort.
 Elettra rages against the Voice and Idamante’s winning of Ilia’s hand, vowing to follow her brother Orestes in the depths of hell.
 She recalls the torments of Ajax and Orestes and summons the Furies to destroy her—or she will die by the sword.
 Idomeneo relinquishes his kingdom with joy and commends Idamante and Ilia to his former subjects.
 A happy chorus ends the proceedings with greetings of love to the new king and his queen—a joyful outcome to this harrowing tale of love and sacrifice.
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MOZART, W.A.: Idomeneo (Streit, Gulin, Tamar, San ...