157. Idomeneo (Mozart)

  • Opera seria in 3 acts
  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Libretto: Giambattista Varesco, based on an earlier libretto by Antoine Danchet
  • First performed: Court Theatre, Munich, 29 January 1781

The claims made about Idomeneo are extravagant and false. It is hailed as Mozart’s first masterpiece, and his finest opera seria – or, worse, as the pinnacle of that genre. It is neither. It is Mozart’s first repertoire opera, true; it may, then, be considered an improvement over the woeful Finta giardiniera of six years before. But the opera is feeble: a long-winded attempt to emulate Gluck, with little sense of drama; a static, seemingly interminable three hours.

Idomeneo, king of Crete, survives a shipwreck on his way back from the Trojan Wars. In his desperation, he promised Neptune that he would sacrifice to the god the first person he saw upon his arrival. Cast up on the Cretan shore, he beholds, to his horror, his son, Idamante. But the king delays in murdering his son; and the infuriated god sends a sea monster to ravage the island. There is also a romantic subplot: Idamante loves the Trojan princess Ilia, but his father wants him to marry the Greek princess Elettra (=Electra).

The happiest time of Mozart’s life, apparently, was when he composed this work, a commission from the Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria. Three years before Idomeneo, the young man had angled for a commission from the Mannheim court, home to the greatest orchestra in Europe: “To write operas now is my one burning ambition. I envy everybody who is composing one.”

Campra‘s five act tragédie lyrique (1712) was turned into a three-act opera seria by the Abbate Giambattista Varesco, the Archbishop of Salzburg’s court chaplain. (The plot of Danchet’s 1712 libretto is more dramatic: Idomeneo is in love with Ilia, and jealous of his son. At the end, he goes mad, and murders Idamante.)

The production featured a superb orchestra, an elderly (66-year-old) tenor in the title role (his last part), and an inexperienced castrato as Idamante. Neither could act, and Mozart had to teach the castrato every note of his part. But it was well received. “No music has ever made such an impression on me,” the Elector declared; “it is magnificent!” And special effects (Neptune coming out of the waves; storm scenes; the monster) and plenty of ballet didn’t hurt. Mozart revised it in 1786 with amateur noble performers, including a bass Idomeneo and tenor Idamante. The work was largely forgotten in the 19th century. It was resurrected on its 150th anniversary – in a revision by Richard Strauss – and the musicologists and Mozarteans have praised it ever since.

Much of what they say is piffle. Alfred Einstein (1946) thought the score was “a source of delight to every true musician” [corollary: if people aren’t delighted, they’re not true musicians], “a veritable explosion of the power of musical invention – and not only of musical, but of musico-dramatic as well”. David Cairns (2006) calls the opera “one of the marvels of music drama”, “a secular Passion, with power to chasten and uplift a distracted age”. Daniel Heartz (1995) believes it is “the greatest lyric tragedy of its century” – which would have been news to Rameau, Gluck, Grétry, Salieri, Sacchini, or Cherubini.

Idomeneo is held up as the greatest opera seria – an ill-founded judgement now we can hear Vinci, Porpora, and other masters of the form. Idomeneo, its admirers say, revolutionises and humanises the genre. Thus Einstein: “It contains nothing merely traditional or conventional or stereotyped…” Musicologists praise the orchestration (clarinets, four horns, oboes, bassoons, trumpets), its harmonic daring, and the way arias merge into recit without pausing for applause – all, in fact, standard practice for tragédie lyrique (where arias had merged into recit since Lully) and Gluckian reform opera.

Cairns simultaneously acknowledges that Idomeneo is far from exceptional in fusing values and techniques from French tragédie lyrique into opera seria; that several composers before Mozart had reduced the number of da capo arias, used expressive accompanied recitative, and assigned a major role to the orchestra [i.e., the principles advanced in Gluck’s famous preface to Alceste, 13 years before]; and that Mozart built on the operas of Jommelli, Traetta, J.C. Bach, and Holzbauer … AND maintains:

  • That Idomeneo is a work unique in 18th– century opera, transforming serious Italian music-drama out of recognition
  • That no one before Mozart had used the orchestra like that
  • That no one before Mozart had moulded the forms of Italian opera to achieve such a degree of dramatic continuity
  • That no one, remotely, before Mozart had created characters as palpably alive and deeply felt as Ilia and Electra and Idomeneo himself
  • That no one had written such impassioned music before
  • That what Mozart does is amazing. “He takes the [opera seria] convention and bends it to his transcendent [!] purposes. Idomeneo is a classic example of Mozart’s ability to inhabit a form with complete artistic freedom and make it his own. Nothing can have prepared the audience for what it heard.”
  • That the accompanied recitative marks an advance on anything … in contemporary opera seria or tragédie lyrique.

As an eminent biographer of Berlioz, Cairns of all people should be familiar with Gluck’s masterpieces; his hyperbolic claims about Mozart are truer of the older musician. Alceste transformed opera seria; its dramatic continuity looks forward to Wagner; and its tragic heroine is more alive than Mozart’s cardboard figures. And the two mighty Iphigénies Gluck wrote for the French stage are even more sublime. In them, Gluck’s ‘impassioned orchestra’ depicts not only emotions and atmospheres, but the subconscious, the soul. Then too Grétry’s Andromaque has more dramatic continuity and concision, more powerful characterisation, and innovative orchestration than Idomeneo. Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta applies Gluckian principles to Italian opera seria, with more success than Mozart; his fast-paced work anticipates Rossini‘s early serious operas.

Idomeneo, compared to Gluck or the later French tragédies lyriques, is not a ‘music drama’. It is a number opera; while many of the individual pieces are attractive, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. Einstein almost admits as much: “To us, it seems as if in Idomeneo [Mozart] had brought a series of his best vocal concert numbers – recitativi accompagnati, arias, and ensembles – into a dramatic connection and united them by means of an imposing and uncanny overture, choral scenes, and instrumental pieces…”

True, there are fine things: that imposing overture in D major; Elettra’s ‘electrifying’ two arias; Idomeneo’s bravura aria “Fuor del mar”; the double chorus of sailors (some offstage); the jubilant “Nettuno s’onori”; the lovely “Placido è il mar”; the impressive prayer “Oh voto tremendo”; and the final celebration “Scenda Amor, scenda Imeneo”.

The third act contains a respected quartet, “Andrò, ramingo e solo”. Einstein calls it “the first really great ensemble in the history of opera seria”, unaware of the trio in Porpora’s Germanico in Germania, or the quartet in Vinci’s Catone in Utica. “Not until the trios and quartets of Verdi does one find a parallel to this quartet,” writes Charles Osborne (1978), casually dismissing bel canto and French opera; “an ensemble of rare dramatic intensity, as well as one of equally rare beauty”.

But the opera bores. The arias are nearly all long, slow, and lack variety: a monotonous succession of melancholy, seven-minute adagios and andantes. (We are a long way from the best opere serie: Vinci and Porpora’s arias, for instance, are both brilliant and varied; we seldom find two arias of a similar character together.)

Many of those arias, moreover, are tedious and dramatically pointless. The first act, for instance, has a dull aria for Ilia, and Idamante’s even duller and longer “Non ho colpa”. (Cairns thinks that perhaps no opera by anybody else starts at such a pitch of emotional intensity. Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide opens with an anguished father who has been ordered to sacrifice his beloved daughter; and I. en Tauride begins with a cataclysmic storm, a chorus of priestesses, and the heroine’s vision of the slaughter of her family … and the murder of her brother at her own hand.) Another inert, irrelevant aria for Ilia opens the third act. Holding up the action for a six-minute concert aria (let alone half a dozen) would be anathema to Gluck. He is rarely prolix; his arias are succinct; he says what he needs to, and his operas move swiftly. So do the best Metastasian operas.


  • David Cairns, Mozart and His Operas, London: Allen Lane, 2006.
  • Edward J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1947.
  • Alfred Einstein, Mozart: his character – his work, trans. Arthur Mendel and Nathan Broder, London: Cassell, 1946.
  • Daniel Heartz, Haydn, Mozart, and the Viennese School, 1740-1780, W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.
  • Gary Kuhn (ed.), Idomeneo, UK: Overture Opera Guide, 2010.
  • Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Mozart, London: Victor Gollancz, 1978.
  • Julian Rushton, The New Grove Guide to Mozart and His Operas, Oxford University Press, 2007.

4 thoughts on “157. Idomeneo (Mozart)

  1. I have always considered Idomeneo an unstageable masterpiece– a masterpiece in that it is filled with great singing and bold orchestration– but, as you said, it is connected with very long and very different arias, choruses, marches, etc., therefore almost making it unstageable, or, rather, very difficult to be staged and be appreciated by new audiences. It is very unlikely that Mozart was a true innovator here in terms of dramatic flow, as many musicologists shamelessly label him as doing. Regardless, the work departs from his other operas in almost all ways, minus the drawn-out da capo arias, and I think it deserves some merit for that.


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