Idomeneo, re di Creta, Opera by W. A. Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had composed no less than nine operas before the age of 25, but, without a doubt, the one that gave him his true start in the genre was Idomeneo, rè di Creta. Comissioned by Karl Theodor, the Elector of Bavaria, the opera premiered on 29 January 1781 at Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich. More than two centuries later, Mozart’s first big success is just as fresh and exciting, and guests of the Rome Opera House are in for a special treat.
To craft the opera’s story, Mozart teamed up with Gianbattista Varesco, a Salzburg-based chaplain. The two reworked an earlier libretto already used by the French composer André Campra in the 1710s. The French connection runs like a red thread through Mozart’s Idomeneo, both musically and structurally. Even though it is commonly classified as an opera seria, the work transgresses the genre’s stiff conventions and sparkles with the Austrian composer’s trademark inventiveness and keen sense for melody.
The opera’s title translates to “Idomeneus, King of Crete” and recounts the story of the ruler’s journey back home from the Trojan War. As stormy weather descends upon his ship, Idomeneo prays to the sea god Neptune for salvation and promises to sacrifice the first living thing he sees on land in his honour if he spares the king’s ship. Unfortunately, the first soul Idomeneo chances upon is Idamante, his own son, and this becomes the plot’s dramatic twist.
As Idomeneo is wrestling with the prospect of killing his own child, two women struggle with their love for Idamante. Princess Ilia of the recently defeated Troy and Princess Elettra of Argos must come to terms with their feelings and act upon them before it is too late. As Neptune’s anger manifests, true love is put to the ultimate test.
Idomeneo’s legendary plot required an equally epic score, and Mozart delivered it spectacularly. Writing with the Elector’s outstanding court orchestra in mind, the young composer built up instrumental passages the conservative world of 18th-century opera had seldom heard before. In a libretto filled with mythical battles, sea monsters, gods and lovers, Mozart’s scintillating orchestral passages provide cohesion and drive the intense drama forward.
It is fair to say Idomeneo was way ahead of its time. It remains a brilliant showcase of Mozart's mature period, and audiences of the Teatro Costanzi in Rome will appreciate that!