Mozart’s Idomeneo

Event: Mozart’s Idomeneo
Date: March 25, 2017, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 3 hours 58 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Idomeneoper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Idomeneoper student • $11.00 online


Crete, around 1200 BC. Idomeneo, King of Crete, has been fighting on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War for several years. Prior to his victorious return home, he has sent ahead of him some Trojan captives, including princess Ilia, daughter of the Trojan king, Priam. She has fallen in love with Idomeneo’s son, Idamante, who has ruled as regent in his father’s absence. Also in love with Idamante is princess Elettra. The daughter of Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks during the war, she has taken refuge in Crete after killing her mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for her father’s death.

Act I

Ilia is torn between her love for Idamante and her hatred for his father and what he has done to her country. Idamante proclaims his love for her, but Ilia, still a prisoner, can’t yet bring herself to openly declare her feelings. Idamante announces that as a gesture of goodwill the Trojan prisoners will be released. The king’s advisor, Arbace, brings news that Idomeneo’s returning fleet has been shipwrecked and that Idomeneo has drowned. Elettra jealously observes the growing love between Idamante and Ilia.

Idomeneo has in fact survived the shipwreck by making a vow to Neptune, god of the sea, that he would sacrifice to him the first man he comes across on land. That man turns out to be his own son, Idamante. Horrified, Idomeneo pushes him away. Idamante is confused by his father’s behavior, while the Cretans praise Neptune for the return of their king.

Act II

Idomeneo confides in Arbace to find a way to save his son. They agree to send Idamante out of the country: he is to escort Elettra back to Argos. Happy and confident, Ilia tells Idomeneo that she now considers Crete her new homeland. Idomeneo begins to suspect that she and her son are in love, and it dawns on him that all three of them will be victims of the gods. Elettra, however, is triumphant: She hopes that as soon as Idamante is far away from Crete and Ilia, she will be able to win him over.

The ship is ready to depart for Argos. Idamante, who still doesn’t understand his father’s motives, is heartbroken but prepares to leave with Elettra. As they are about to set sail, another storm arises and a sea monster appears. Idomeneo confesses his guilt in breaking his oath and offers himself as a sacrifice. The Cretans flee in terror.


Ilia longs for Idamante and finally admits her love when he tells her that he is going to fight the sea monster. Idomeneo—who still hasn’t revealed the subject of his oath—commands again that his son leave Crete. Idamante, full of sorrow, resolves to do so. Arbace reports that the people are angry and, led by the High Priest of Neptune, are demanding to see the king. The monster has brought death and destruction to the island and the High Priest demands that Idomeneo name the victim who must be sacrificed to appease Neptune. Idomeneo reveals that it is his son. The preparations for the sacrifice are interrupted by news that Idamante has killed the monster. Realizing that his father has been cold to him out of love, not hatred, Idamante 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 Neptune intervenes, proclaiming that if Idomeneo will step aside and yield power to Idamante and Ilia, the gods will be satisfied. Elettra, robbed of all hope, collapses. Idomeneo agrees to give up the throne to his son and unites him with Ilia. The Cretans bless their alliance.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

“I have an unspeakable desire to compose opera … I am beside myself as soon as I hear anybody talk about an opera, sit in a theatre or hear singing.” That’s Mozart, writing to his father in 1777. Idomeneo was his lucky 13th opera. (Can you name any of the previous twelve?) It came as a major commission from Munich for an opera seria. At his disposal was a well-equipped theater and the magnificent Mannheim Orchestra, the greatest of its day. Mozart threw himself into the project — his wife Constanze later called it the happiest time of his life — and demanded many revisions to Varesco’s turgid libretto. “In opera,” he wrote (misogynistically, by our standards), “the text must be the obedient daughter of the music.”

The story comes from Greek legends of the Trojan War, though it does not appear in Homer. It is essentially the same as the Old Testament story of Jeptha, though with a son as sacrificial victim instead of a daughter. The theme of parents sacrificing their children, by fate or choice, is an ancient one. Some commentators of a Freudian bent see Mozart’s subject as a reflection of the strained relations with his father. But the libretto was foisted on him; he didn’t choose it.

Opera seria, which had dominated the stage for a century, was on its way out. Mythological subjects; strings of da capo arias alternating with secco recitative; the parade of high voices (notably castrati); tragedies with happy endings: it had all become stultifyingly routine. Mozart was stuck with some of this for Idomeneo. But here he radically transformed the idiom. Much of Idomeneo feels through-composed, with one number flowing naturally into the next. The free-standing heroic arias are there, but the chorus has a vastly more prominent role than usual, as do ensemble numbers, including a quartet. The orchestral writing is incredibly colorful, especially the woodwinds and the solemn trombones (Mozart made three different versions of that passage before he was satisfied). Most of all, he turned the story into dramma per musica, drama through music, prefiguring the great da Ponte trilogy (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte) to come.

When opera seria went out of fashion, Idomeneo disappeared for more than a century. With modern revivals it has entered the canon. Mozart would be pleased. Of all his operas, it remained his favorite.