We mark the premiere on January 29, 1781 – 243 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, Re di Creta (“Idomeneo, King of Crete”). With a libretto by Giambattista Varesco (1735-1805), which was adapted from a French story by Antoine Danchet (1671-1748), itself based on a play written in 1705 by the French tragedian Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674 -1762; that’s a lot of writing credits!), Idomeneo received its premiere at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich, Germany. Idomeneo was a hit, and it constitutes not just Mozart’s first operatic masterwork but, by consensus, the single greatest Italian-language opera seria ever composed!
Setting the Biographical Scene
On January 15th, 1779, the 23-year-old Wolfgang Mozart returned home to Salzburg after having been away for 15 months. His trip, which had taken him primarily to Mannheim and Paris, had been both a professional and personal disaster. He had left Salzburg with his mother, filled with high hopes, high spirits, and dreams of finding a permanent job and romance. He returned without his mother (who had died in Paris), without a job, without any money, and without the young woman he had met and fallen in love with during the trip (one Aloysia Weber), who had rejected his proposal of marriage and sent him packing.
In returning – at his father Leopold’s insistence – to Salzburg and the dreaded employ of Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo (to say nothing for the life of chastity required by both his father and the archbishop!), Mozart was painfully aware that he was wasting his time, his talent, and his testosterone. And he was furious about it.
By 1780, the now 24-year-old Mozart was both personally and professionally suffocating there in Salzburg. He desperately wanted out and despaired that life was passing him by.
More than anything, Mozart wanted to compose opera (something that was difficult to do in Salzburg, given that the archbishop had closed all the theaters!). Mozart was, at his core, a person of the theater and lived for everything the opera theater entailed. He wrote:
“I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.”
The Stars Align
As the old line goes, “sometimes, it’s not just what you know but who you know that matters!”
In 1780, that line applied very nicely to Mozart, for which we all must be grateful. Because it was thanks to his own, hard-won personal contacts that he received the commission for Idomeneo, a commission that changed not only Mozart’s life but the very history of Western music, taken as widely as we please.…Become a Patron!