Great moments in opera: Idomeneo

August 9, 2010

Idomeneo, written when Mozart was 24 years old, is the earliest of his operas to be regularly recorded and performed today. It is an opera seria, and so inherits the rather formal (and, some might say, drama-quenching) conventions of that genre.  Certainly it is nowhere near as engaging as his later da Ponte operas.  Still, there are beautiful things in it, and it is worth hearing.

The story is drawn, as was standard for opera seria, from mythology.  Returning from the Trojan war, Idomeneo, the king of Crete, is imperiled at sea.  He makes a vow to Neptune that if he is saved from death he will sacrifice the first person he sees on shore.  He is saved, but, tragically, the unlucky man is Idomeneo’s own son, Idamante.  There is also a romance between Idamante and Ilea, the daughter of Priam.  Anyway, despite the ominous premise of the story, everything works out in the end.

One of my favourite bits of this opera is the chorus Placido è il mar, sung to celebrate the auspiciously calm seas.  It has a gorgeous and relaxed melody with a gently rocking orchestral accompaniment.  Here it is, from a French performance given last year in Aix-en-Provence, with Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Mark Minkowski.  The two instances of the chorus are separated by a brief aria for Elettra, sung here by Mireille Delunsch.  To my ears she sounds out of tune, but the chorus sounds fine.

One of the show-stopping pieces in Idomeneo is the quartet Andrò ramingo e solo, sung by Idomeneo, Ilia, Idamante, and Elettra.  At this point in the story Idamante is preparing to leave Crete in order to evade the merciless justice of Neptune, and Idamante and Idomeneo lament his going. (Elettra, for her part, is meditating on revenge, for reasons that would be too complicated to explain.) Here is a performance with Nicolaus Harnoncourt leading Concertus Musicus Wein.  There are no subtitles, but an English translation can be seen here (scroll down to “No.21 – Quartet”).  In this clip, the quartet begins at about 2:05.

Listening to Mozart has been so refreshing that I am going to continue to do so.  I hope to turn my attention to the da Ponte operas, starting with Le Nozze di Figaro, sometime soon.

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2 Responses to “Great moments in opera: Idomeneo


  1. Le Nozze di Figaro! It is wonderful. I saw a performance last October at the Metropolitan Opera, which was at least moderately life-changing. Sublime music, and the denouement is tremendously moving. It almost makes me wish that I listened to more opera (I have the choral director’s irrational aversion to singing with vibrato).

  2. cburrell Says:

    I have an aversion to vibrato too, but there is a partial remedy: “historically informed performance practice”. Their voices may be light-weight, but they hit the note and stick. It doesn’t work in Strauss, but in Mozart it is still okay.

    Le Nozze di Figaro is the one da Ponte opera that I have not seen on the stage, and it is, perhaps for that very reason, my least favourite of the three. Which is not to say that I don’t love it, because I do, but somehow it feels more distant to me than the others. I hope to see it performed when the opportunity arises.


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