Idomeneo – destroyed by a monster within

Director Stephen Medcalf emphasises human emotion over ancient myths in Buxton’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

First performed in Vienna in 1792 and composed when Mozart was 25 years old, Idomeneo is widely regarded as Mozart’s first mature work for the stage and the first in a long line of incomparable masterpieces which ends with The Magic Flute and Mozart’s untimely death.

The story is based on legend: according to Homer King Idomeneus of Crete is returning from the Trojan war when his ship is caught up in a ferocious storm. He vows to Neptune, god of the sea, that if he is saved he will sacrifice the first human being he meets on dry land, which turns out to be his own son. The libretto turns this story into a powerful enlightenment drama which celebrates the triumph of human reason and compassion over the absolutist will of the gods. It also explores ideas of leadership and responsibility and examines how human beings behave when they experience the stress of an endless and bloody conflict. In this respect the themes of the opera are familiar to today’s audience, dealing as they do with the inevitable consequences of a long war: suffering on a huge scale and the mass displacement of peoples. In many respects Idomeneo is like any returning veteran, trying desperately to adjust to peace time while war still rages within him.

Mozart’s music is extraordinary; no other word will suffice. He takes the traditional form of the old opera seria as perfected by Handel but gives it a good shake up and in so doing advances it towards the through composed music drama of the nineteenth century. First of all he introduces the chorus as a major protagonist (under the influence of Gluck) and composes for them some of the most dramatically potent and sublimely beautiful choruses ever written. He does away with the traditional stop-start character of the opera seria by composing bridging passages and incidental music which give the opera great fluidity and a sense of forward momentum. He brilliantly exploits the form of the accompagnato (orchestral recitative) to give an active quality to reflection and a reflective quality to action; thus the plot moves forward on a crest of an emotional wave. Most important of all his music creates truthful characters of psychological complexity, which of course are to become the hallmark of his late, great Da Ponte trilogy.

There is, of course, plenty of traditional operatic spectacle implied in the stage directions of but what fascinates myself and the designer, Isabella Bywater about Idomeneo, and arguably what most interested Mozart is not so much the boiling seas, shipwrecks, gods and sea monsters but what they represent. In a moment of musico-dramatic genius the jealous rage of Electra’s first aria Tutto nel cor vi sento mutates into the tempest that destroys the Cretan fleet. Later, in probably the most famous aria of all: Fuor del Mar, Idomeneo likens his suffering to a raging sea within his breast. Then when the sea monster appears at the climax of Act 2 it seems to be the personification of Idomeneo’s guilt, tormenting him as his subjects gaze on amazed.

At this critical moment Idomeneo cries out: ‘Eccoti in me, barbaro Nume! Il reo!’: which can be translated as ‘Here he is, cruel god! The guilty one’. At a literal level he means guilty in the sense that he has failed to carry out the sacrifice of the innocent victim that he promised in exchange for his own life and is therefore the one responsible for provoking Neptune’s anger. But at another level it refers to the crippling sense of guilt he suffers as a result of making the vow in the first place. The first part of the sentence has the literal meaning ‘Here you are in me, cruel god’ and which tantalisingly hints at the idea that Idomeneo feels himself possessed by the spirit of the vengeful Neptune. It may be that what terrifies the populace is not the monster in the waves but the prospect of their all-powerful leader disintegrating before their eyes, destroyed by a monster within.

Stephen Medcalf, Director

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