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Idomeneo, re di Creta, Opera by W. A. Mozart

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Opera by W. A. Mozart

Idomeneo, rè di Creta marks a decisive point in the career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Until he tackled this project, commissioned by Bavaria’s Elector Karl Theodor in 1780, the young Austrian composer had worked in the genre of opera seria with limited success. Thanks to a confluence of fortunate circumstances, with Idomeneo Mozart could unleash his creativity. The result, as audiences at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma will see, was nothing short of stunning.

With a libretto by Gianbattista Varesco, derived from an earlier version set by the Frenchman André Campra, Idomeneo (or “Idomeneus, King of Crete” in English) gave Mozart the perfect opportunity to push the boundaries of the genre of opera seria. The composer welcomed the French influence already attached to the original libretto, and he produced a score that combined the Italian singing style with the French dramaturgical sensibility. It was a match made in heaven, even if it was ahead of its time.

Another factor that allowed Mozart to unchain his creativity was the fantastic, extra-large orchestra of the Bavarian Elector’s court. The composer deliberately wrote with the excellent ensemble in mind, and many agree the orchestral scoring for Idomeneo remains his richest, most complex ever. As moments of epic action alternate with more private scenes of doubt, internal struggle, or love, the orchestra is always present and drives the plot forward with precision and dramatic flair.

Mozart’s epic score supports a grand story: Idomeneo, King of Crete, is sailing home after the Trojan War when a storm threatens to sink his ship. To gain Neptune’s favour, he promises the sea god a sacrifice. Little does he know that the sacrifice would have to be his own son, Idamante.

As the father confronts the tragic choice between killing his child and angering Neptune, a love triangle forms between Idamante, Troy’s Princess Ilia and Argos’s Princess Elettra. Loyalties are tested, great battles are fought, while parental and romantic love must challenge a mighty god to finally restore justice.

Idomeneo had its premiere on 29 January 1781 at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich. Ironically, the only press account of that night focussed its praise on the stage designs and décor; it even omitted the composer’s name. Centuries later, Idomeneo’s full potential is finally appreciated, and the opera is a celebrated jewel in Mozart’s crown.

image Rome Opera House / Silvia Lelli / Teatro dell'Opera di Roma