Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfang Mozart: Idomeneo

Luciano Pavarotti, Ileana Cotrubas, Hildegard Behrens, Frederica von Stade, John Alexander; The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus, conducted by James Levine
Today’s Prescribed Performance

Mozart’s Operas

Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) composed 21 operas (three of them left incomplete) across the span of his all-too-brief life, from the modest Apollo et Hyacinthus (Apollo and Hyacinth, composed in 1767 when he was 11 years old) to La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, completed in August of 1791, some 3½ months before Mozart’s death).

Mozart’s operas fall into four main categories: opera seria (“serious opera,” also referred to as dramma per musica), works set in Italian; dramma giocoso (“drama with jokes”), works set in Italian; opera buffa (“comic opera,” also referred to as commedia in musicacommedia per musicadramma bernescodramma comico, and divertimento giocoso), works set in Italian; and singspiel (opera with spoken dialogue), works set in German.

The seven complete, multi-act operas Mozart composed in the 11 years between 1780 and his death in 1791 must be considered as being the greatest, single most significantset of operas ever composed by any individual composer in such a short period of time: Idomeneo (1780); The Abduction from the Seraglio (1781); The Marriage of Figaro (1786); Don Giovanni (1787); Cosi fan tutte (1789); The Magic Flute (1791), and The Mercy of Titus (1791).  

Idomeneo, King of Crete: Characters, Voice Types, and Plot line

The action of Idomeneo takes place in ancient Crete, in its fictional capital city of Sidon, ten years after the conclusion of the Trojan War.  (According to the dates for the Trojan War determined by the Greek polymath Eratosthenes [who died 194 BCE], that would place the action of the opera squarely in the year 1174 BCE.)

The plot of Idomeneo revolves around a love triangle, though it’s a love triangle with a twist.    

Let us first meet the members of the triangle, which comprises two women and one man:

Woman number one: put your hands together for Ilia!  Ilia is a princess: none-other-than the daughter of King Priam of Troy.  She is currently being held on Crete as a prisoner of war and she is not a happy camper.  For our information, on arriving in Crete, Ilia was shipwrecked and rescued by:

Idamante, the man of the triangle!  It just so happens that Idamante is a prince and heir to the throne of Crete. (As if Ilia was going to be rescued by a fish monger! Please!) Idamante is deeply in love with Ilia who, despite her hatred for the Greeks, is in love with him as well (though it is a love she has kept to herself, as Idamante is the enemy).

Woman number two:  here’s Electra!  Electra has been living in Crete for some time, in order to get some sun, fun, and fresh air, as she attempts to cope with the deaths of her father, Agamemnon, her brother, Orestes (with whom Elektra plotted to kill Agamemnon, for which Orestes was driven mad by the Furies before dying from a snakebite), and her mom, Clytemnestra, whom Elektra personally whacked!  Electra is a wreck, a borderline psychotic, a ticking time bomb: filled with grief and self-loathing and angst, she is vindictive, hysterical, suicidal, homicidal, and in love with Idamante as well!

Voice Types, and Why it’s Easier to Watch Idomeneo than Just Listen to it

Mozart composed the part of Ilia – the Trojan princess – for a lyric soprano named Dorothea Wendling.

The part of Electra was written for Dorothea Wendling’s sister, the dramatic soprano Elisabeth Wendling.  

The part of Idamante – the Prince of Crete – was created for the male soprano/castrato Vincenzo del Prato. 

And there’s the rub, if Signor del Prato will excuse me for using that particular word.  While many modern performances substitute a tenor singing an octave down for the part of Idamante, just as many employ a female soprano in trousers, as does the prescribed performance (the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade).  

(FYI: despite her dauntingly Germanic name, our friend Flika is a Jersey girl, born in the north-central New Jersey town of Somerville.)  

In 1786, Mozart himself substituted a tenor for Idamante in a performance of Idomeneo that took place in Vienna at Prince Auersperg’s palace.  But he originally intended the role of Idamante to be sung by a soprano, so despite the differences between a male and female soprano, a soprano voice will more closely approach Mozart’s original compositional impulse.

The upshot is that it’s easy to be confused when listening to a recording of Idomeneo that employs a soprano singing the role of Idamante, because every member of the love triangle will have a female voice!  However, we’ll suffer no such confusion when attending a performance or watching one on video. …

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