Mozart’s Great Choral Opera: “Idomeneo” 

New, Exciting, Different – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart breaks all the rules


Teatro Comunale di Bologna 2010 Photo: Rocco Casaluci


Teatro Comunale di Bologna 2010 Photo: Rocco Casaluci

In 1780, a commission from Munich finally arrived: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was to compose an opera seria, the story of the king of Crete: “Idomeneo”. Colloredo granted him six weeks' leave. After three days on the stage coach, Mozart finally arrived in Munich.

Here, optimal working conditions awaited him: his beloved Mannheim orchestra and the world famous ensemble of singers of the Elector of Pfalz, Karl Theodor, were at his disposal. He had already collaborated with the theatre director Joseph Count Seeau in Munich during the production of “La Finta Giardiniera”. The libretto was based on the tragedy “Idoménée” by Antoine Danchet. It was reworked into Italian for Mozart’s opera by the court chaplain Varesco of Salzburg.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart exerted great influence over the libretto. He was determined to break old rules and to create something completely new and exciting. Working with Varesco could not have been unproblematic…

Of gods and men …

“Idomeneo” by Mozart is based on material from ancient antiquity and tells the story of the king of Crete, Idomeneus. During his return from the Trojan War he gets into distress at sea. To survive, he vows to the god of oceans, Poseidon, to sacrifice the first man he encounters after his rescue.

His son Idamante is romantically involved with Ilia, a Trojan prisoner of war, and wants to marry her. But Elektra covets the prince as well. When Idamante learns of the disaster that struck his father’s fleet, he is convinced that Idomeneo is dead.

Idamante stands grieving at the beach when his father’s ship lands. He is overjoyed to see his father alive. However, Idomeneo is struck by terror: his son is the first human being he encounters on dry land.

Is it possible to disappoint a god?

Mozart’s Idomeneo wants to save the life of his son at all costs. He sends him away to Elektra’s home country, in the company of Elektra herself. But Poseidon will not be deceived. A terrible storm destroys Idamante’s ship and a sea monster appears to claim the prince’s life.

Before Idamante sets out to challenge the sea monster, he and Ilia confess their love for one another. Facing the threat of the sea monster, Idomeneo is forced to divulge which sacrifice the monster demands: his son.

A human sacrifice is prepared at the temple of Poseidon. Idomeneo himself shall kill his son. In despair, Ilia interposes herself between the men. Finally, the voice of the oracle declares that Idamante can stay alive if Idomeneo abdicates and makes Ilia queen.

Mozart’s opera – a treasure trove of recitatives, effects, choir and ballet scenes

Mozart’s “Idomeneo” is a lyrical tragedy and is considered Mozart’s greatest choral opera. It is composed in the baroque tradition of the opera seria; however, Mozart excels at giving it new traits and forms. He also exerted his influence on the dramaturgy, shortened parts to increase their effect, increased the suspense with a dense use of instruments and wrote the marvellous ballet music.

The premiere in Munich in 1781 at the Residenz Theatre was a great success. Mozart stayed three months instead of six weeks and enjoyed the carnival season to the full. He felt no urge to return to Salzburg…