Opera Scotland

Idomeneo, Re di Creta Idomeneo, re di Creta Idomeneus, King of Crete

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (born Salzburg, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791)

Giambattista Varesco.

Adapted from French opera libretto by Antoine Danchet, set by André Campra (1712).

First performance: Munich (Cuvilliés Theatre), 29 January 1781.
First UK performance: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 12 March 1934.
First performance in Scotland: As above.
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 19 October 1983.

This wonderful opera was a victim of fashion when the whole tradition of opera seria became neglected in the 19th century. It was one of the first to be revived in the 20th century, and is a blazing masterpiece by any standards, with dramatic awareness every bit as wonderful as in Mozart’s later works. The four principal characters are three-dimensional creatures of flesh and blood, and a great deal of the music is quite extraordinarily moving. In Munich, Idamante was composed for a castrato, with music at soprano pitch. Mozart later recast it successfully for a tenor, and that is the form that was initially revived. However the soprano edition is performed increasingly often, and some of the music (especially the last act quartet) gains from the use of that version.

Main Characters
Idomeneo, King of Crete (tenor)
Idamante, his son (soprano or tenor)
Ilia, a Trojan princess, daughter of Priam (soprano)
Elettra, a Greek princess, daughter of Agamemnon, King of Argos (soprano)
Arbace, confidant of Idomeneo (tenor)
High Priest of Neptune (tenor)
Voice of Neptune (bass)

Plot Summary
Idomeneo has joined the Greek campaign in the Trojan War, leaving his son, Idamante, a child in the care of Arbace. Near the end of his ten-year absence, Ilia is sent to Crete with a number of other Trojan prisoners. Elettra has also come to Crete, following her father’s murder. Both women are in love with Idamante. During his return home, Idomeneo’s ship has narrowly avoided wreck. In his prayer to Neptune which he believes calmed the storm and saved his life, Idomeneo vowed to sacrifice the first person he meets at his arrival on shore. As the opera begins, he finds, Inevitably, that this person met on the beach is Idamante, who is bewildered at his apparent rejection by his father. On Arbace’s advice, Idomeneo decides to send Idamante away to safety, by escorting Elettra to her homeland. For one brief moment Elettra is happy at this prospect. However as they are embarking, Neptune expresses his fury by raising a storm and sending a sea-monster to terrorise the population. Idomeneo realizes this disaster is his fault. Idamante prepares to set off to fight the monster, and he and Ilia realise their mutual love. Elettra is appalled at this, and Idomeneo, aware that he has damaged three lives, ponders on the circumstances. The ensuing quartet is glorious. Idamante, having killed the monster, finds out the truth of his father’s vow, and offers himself up for sacrifice. However Neptune intervenes – Idomeneo will abdicate in favour of Idamante and Ilia. All are happy with this solution, apart from Elettra.


ARCHIV (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1990

Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner.
English Baroque Soloists
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Idomeneo), Anne Sofie von Otter (Idamante), Sylvia McNair (Ilia).
Hillevi Martinpelto (Elettra), Nigel Robson (Arbace).

Gardiner’s account uses original instruments in appropriate style, and was the first recording to include all the music, including the ballet. Most of the singing is excellent, Idomeneo and Idamante very much more than that. Highlights include Rolfe Johnson’s majestic performance of the fiendish “Fuor del mar”, the great quartet, and Martinpelto’s mad scene near the end, where the orchestra helps to create a terrifying impression of the Furies at work in her mind.

EMI (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 2001

Conductor: Charles Mackerras. Scottish Chamber Orchestra Ian Bostridge (Idomeneo), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Idamante), Lisa Milne (Ilia). Barbara Frittoli (Elettra), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Arbace).

Mackerras had plenty of experience conducting this opera, and as usual with his SCO performances he uses modern instruments informed by a revived classical style of playing (and assisted by natural brass instruments). The singing is excellent, particularly from the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Lisa Milne repeats the movingly beautiful Ilia that she sang with Scottish Opera in David McVicar’s 1996 production. Ian Bostridge gives a thoroughly convincing performance, and Arbace’s arias are for once well worth hearing. Somehow having a native Italian gives Elettra’s dramatic recitatives a special attack. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus, as usual, give a vividly dramatic performance.

ARTHAUS (1 DVD) Sung in Italian Recorded 1974

Conductor: John Pritchard. Director: John Cox. Designer: Roger Butlin. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Richard Lewis (Idomeneo), Leo Goeke (Idamante), Bozena Betley (Ilia), Josephine Barstow (Elettra), Alexander Oliver (Arbace).

John Pritchard had decades of experience with Idomeneo, working on the first British professional production (at Glyndebourne in 1951). In those days substantial cuts were made to the text. He recorded it in the studio twice; first in 1956, with a cast including Richard Lewis, Leopold Simoneau, Sena Jurinac, and Lucille Udovick; secondly in 1983, with the Vienna Philharmonic and an equally stellar cast (including Pavarotti, Baltsa, Popp, and Gruberová). This stage version, filmed at Glyndebourne, preserves John Cox’s handsomely designed production, the one drawback of which was to reduce the stage size, so that crowd scenes become a bit static. It lets us see Richard Lewis near the end of his career – he gives a nobly restrained performance. And Josephine Barstow gives a contrastingly dramatic one as Elettra. It also gives us the version with Idamante as tenor – Leo Goeke copes well. Bozena Betley is superb as Ilia, with an unusually dark tone to her voice. Cox, as director at Scottish Opera, borrowed this staging in 1983, when it was very effective (with Margaret Marshall and Isobel Buchanan alternating as Ilia).

The Cast

 Idomeneo's confidant
 daughter of Agamemnon
First Cretan Citizen
First Cretan Woman
First Trojan Man
High Priest
 of Neptune
 son of Idomeneo
 King of Crete
 a Trojan princess, daughter of Priam
Second Cretan Citizen
Second Cretan Woman
Second Trojan Man
Voice of Neptune

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