Mozart’s Idomeneo

In 1829, nearly a half-century after Idomeneo’s premiere, Mozart’s widow Constanze recalled an episode that underscores the special place the opera clearly held in its composer’s heart. The young couple was visiting Salzburg, where Mozart introduced his wife to his father for the first time with the hope of patching things up following a period of estrangement. As the family spent an evening making music together, according to Constanze, they sang the quartet from the third act of Idomeneo (“Andrò ramingo e solo”). Suddenly, Mozart became “so overwhelmed that he burst into tears and had to leave the room; it was some time before I could console him.”

Idomeneo marked a personal and professional watershed for its creator. Mozart, whose 25th birthday coincided with the dress rehearsal (January 27, 1781), had at last received an operatic commission commensurate with his growing mastery, thanks (most likely) to his musician friends at the court of Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria. It was during an extensive and revelatory tour across Europe (between 1777 and 1779) that the young composer stopped in Mannheim, where this enthusiastic patron of the arts had built up his court orchestra into an internationally reputed ensemble. Though the permanent position Mozart longed for was not forthcoming—he had grown increasingly desperate to escape opera-poor Salzburg—the Elector commissioned him in the fall of 1780 to write the major operatic entertainment for the upcoming Carnival season.

Idomeneo was an especially exciting prospect for Mozart because of the resources he knew would be at his disposal in Munich, where Karl Theodor had recently relocated his court. The libretto was to be furnished by Giovanni Battista Varesco (1735–1805), a cleric, poet, and musician based in Salzburg. In November 1780, Mozart moved temporarily to Munich to work with the singers as he prepared Idomeneo. Because Varesco remained behind in Salzburg, the composer relied on his father, Leopold, to serve as a diplomatic go-between while he tailored the libretto to his vision—and to his practical sense of stage worthiness.

Thanks to this happy accident, the surviving correspondence from son to father gives us a fascinating glimpse into Mozart’s creative process. The letters involving Idomeneo show his fixation on detail and overall effect alike. They address such topics as the quality of the singers’ acting: for example, Mozart complained of the stand-and-sing delivery of the tenor Anton Raaff (Idomeneo would be the final role in his long career). Mozart also repeatedly emphasized the virtue of brevity and directness as he attempted to rein in Varesco’s rambling, tendentious text. Thus, he objected to the first draft for the mysterious oracle at the denouement as overwritten: “The longer [the voice] goes on, the more the audience will become aware that there’s nothing real about it. If the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet were not quite so long, it would be much more effective,” noted the composer.

Varesco adapted a pre-existing French text from the early 18th century by Antoine Dancher; it had already been set by André Campra in 1712 in the style of French Baroque opera. Though encountered relatively rarely in classical literature (most famously in The Iliad as a brave warrior), the figure of Idomeneo had become freshly attractive during the Enlightenment as a classical counterpart to the biblical narratives of Abraham and Isaac and Jephtha and his daughter. The scholar Nicholas Till has observed that such myths were valued because they dramatized the Enlightenment conviction in “the superiority of natural law to customary and religious law; for human sacrifice, as a sacramental deed, provides a religious sanction for a basic transgression against nature: murder.” Gluck, for example, whose reformist opera Mozart had encountered in Paris, showed a predilection for the Iphigenia myth, involving similar scenarios of human sacrifice, in two of his greatest works.

The operatic Idomeneo actually entails a synthetic myth that interlaces the returning warrior’s story with the figure of Elettra, who appears as a refugee from Mycenae after her brother Orestes had slain their mother Clytemnestra—still another variant of a sort of human sacrifice, though in this case not of an “innocent” victim. Dancher’s original ending was tragic: Idomeneo, having become insane, does sacrifice Idamante, and Elettra thus obtains her longed-for vengeance. The revised version set by Mozart, in contrast, ends with the triumph of both reason and love.

Idomeneo’s core conflict—the confrontation between an old order beholden to superstition and a new one motivated by love—must have resonated deeply for Mozart as he stood on the threshold of personal and artistic independence. The son-father scenario, in which many have detected a personal echo of the Wolfgang-Leopold tension, is thus just one instance in Idomeneo of the archetypal relationship of submission to a figure of authority. Others are the enslavement of the Trojan prisoners of war by the Greeks and, on the cosmic level, of mortals to the will of the gods. With Elettra, we even encounter the captivity of lovers to the emotions that rule them.

Far from representing the increasingly antiquated conventions of myth- centered opera seria, Idomeneo prompted Mozart to animate the story’s characters and situations by drawing on the musical wisdom he had accumulated to date. Into this score he poured everything he had learned: the lyrical illumination of heightened emotions from Italian opera (his preceding opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, dated from nearly a decade before); the dramatic naturalness and simplicity of the Gluckistes he had witnessed in Paris, according to which arias are anchored within a clear dramatic context—Elettra’s first aria, for example, bleeds into the ensuing storm—while the emotional resonance of the recitatives becomes amplified; but also the beautiful pomp and impressive spectacle of French Baroque opera (for the prominent choruses and ballet music and the divine interventions that erupt in all three acts: the shipwreck, the storm and sea monster, and the oracle).

Mozart similarly drew on his experience composing sacred music for chorus and soloists and on his knowledge of the symphonic orchestra, inspired by the remarkable ensemble of virtuoso players from Karl Theodor’s court (especially the woodwinds—this is Mozart’s first opera to include clarinets in his orchestra, while his use of three trombones and two horns endows the climactic oracle scene with its numinous power). As musicologist and biographer David Cairns observes, Mozart’s deployment in Idomeneo “of orchestral color for dramatic and psychological effect looks forward to the discoveries and experiments of Romanticism.”

Idomeneo’s variety of scenes and interludes elicited from Mozart music of brilliant, innovative colors. He also uses the principle of contrast to remarkable dramatic effect. Thus the oracle’s power is enhanced by its position within the larger context of the final scene, and Mozart does not hesitate to summon the sublime alongside his beautiful melodies—even if that requires imagining sonorities that might be perceived as ugly.

The title character’s entrance aria reveals his capacity to feel pity for his victim— not yet identified as his son Idamante—yet Idomeneo remains bound to the old order of blind obedience. His plight results from the warrior’s vow, which stands for his superstitious, fear-driven perspective—a fear concretely symbolized by the sea-monster that his son elects to confront. In the end, anticipating the denouement of The Magic Flute a decade later, Idomeneo’s old order yields governance to the marriage of reason and love represented by the union of Idamanate and Ilia, who herself had overcome her tribal allegiance to Priam and the Trojans. Yet Elettra rages on, the outcast who is still enslaved by passion, prefiguring the coloratura rage and untamed emotions of the Queen of the Night. Elettra exemplifies Mozart’s creative reimagining of convention (the stereotype of the Baroque rage aria). The musicologist Julian Rushton likens her final aria to an exorcism. In another sense, perhaps, Elettra is the lurking fury waiting to erupt into revolution by century’s end.

The quartet that so moved its composer during that visit to Salzburg two years after Idomeneo—“nothing in the entire opera pleases me as much as this quartet,” he wrote—is an emblem of Mozart’s perfecting of his art. It encapsulates in musico-dramatic terms the moment in the opera when its four principal characters are torn by their individual, conflicting predicaments. This quartet, writes Cairns, “marks a new tone in the tragedy, of transfigured suffering, and so prepares for the turning-point of the drama.”

Idomeneo gave Mozart “the chance to give out all that he had learned from life and art, all he had experienced of love and suffering and pity and guilt, his comprehensive understanding of the dramatic, his consciousness of unequalled powers, in an opera that was an answer to prayer.”


—Thomas May