A captive princess. A brave prince. An angry God. What’s not to like?

“But nothing could make Idomeneus panic—no green boy,
he stood his ground like a wild mountain boar,
trusting his strength, standing up to a rout of men…”
—Homer, The Iliad as translated by Robert Fagles

In the opening to Chapter 13 of The Iliad, Homer mentions Idomeneus, the king of Crete, who led the Cretan army to fight alongside the Greeks in the Trojan War, and was one of Helen’s many suitors. From this brief account of a tremendously strong, experienced, and fearless warrior, an elaborate homecoming story has developed and been embroidered over the ages. Homer’s epic poem about the fall of Troy has endured for centuries, and in 1780 a musical prodigy was commissioned to compose a cutting-edge work based on a French version of the tale of Idomeneus, combining Italian and French operatic traditions. Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta premiered during the Munich carnival season the following winter, when the composer was just twenty-five years old.

Mozart’s first masterpiece in opera, Idomeneo is rich with the deep emotion and aristocratic restraint of opera seria, but enlivened by the choruses and dance of French court opera. Idomeneo is the largest of Mozart’s operas, and the most ambitious on every level–from the brilliant orchestral writing and daunting scenic demands, to the sheer scope of the story. Though the more famous Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte were to follow, Idomeneo would remain Mozart’s favorite of all his works for the stage.


The Shipwreck; Idomeneo Set Design by Steven C. Kemp, 2011

Before the opera even begins, the situation is primed for emotional extremes. Set on the island of Crete at the end of the Trojan War, it is the story of King Idomeneo’s return after the ten-year siege on the plains of Troy. Several ships in the fleet had been sent ahead to Crete laden with treasure, captured Trojan warriors, and his most significant trophy, the kidnapped princess Ilia–the beautiful daughter of King Priam of Troy, and sister of Hector and Paris. By his own admission, Idomeneo was filled with pride over his part in the winning of that devastating war, and as we all know, Greek gods did not abide a prideful man…

Within sight of Sidon, the capital of Crete, Neptune attacked Idomeneo’s fleet and the ships were overwhelmed by a violent storm, the hapless passengers thrown into the sea. The ship bearing Ilia was the first to sink, but Idamante, crown prince of Crete and only child of Idomeneo rescued her from the pounding surf. This put Ilia into a difficult position; she hated the Greeks for killing her father and brothers, for sacking and burning her city, and for the utter destruction of her nation. Yet suddenly, she owed her very life to Idamante, the handsome son of the renowned warrior who helped to defeat her people.

Ilia’s Room; Idomeneo Set Design by Steven C. Kemp, 2011

Back at the palace, Ilia is given a place of honor, but she is not the only royal guest. Also in residence is Elettra, daughter of the Greek King Agamemnon. Elettra fled Argos after a violent bloodbath: upon his return from Troy her father, Agamemnon, was murdered by his wife’s lover, and Elettra’s brother Orestes had, in turn, killed their mother out of vengeance. Now homeless, Elettra has pinned her royal hopes on Idamante, who through marriage, could restore her to a throne. In Elettra’s eyes, Ilia should be no more than a vanquished slave.

Idomeneo, meanwhile, finds his own ship the object of Neptune’s greatest wrath. In the most violent terrors of the storm, Neptune extracts a cruel vow from Idomeneo: to save his own life, he must sacrifice to Neptune the first mortal he meets on shore. Of course, the god is aware that the person Idomeneo will meet will be his only son.

The clockwork of tragedy is set in motion, and it presses relentlessly towards an end that will break the heart of Ilia, ruin the hopes of Elettra, and end Idomeneo’s royal line, except for one caveat of opera seria: the happy ending. Finding out how Mozart manages this twist of fate is part of the reason to buy a ticket. Suffice it to say, the final curtain falls while the people of Crete are dancing.

Opera San José has long looked through the score of Idomeneo with green eyes. Mozart lavished much of his most appealing and dramatic music on this opera: its characters are richly drawn and their emotional states, while clear, are ever changing and underscored with revealing harmonic shifts. Idomeneo is filled with lovely, limpid arias, brilliant arias, and arias of fire and fury. It has the most powerful choruses of the era, and incorporates dance, ritual movement, and wonderful scenic effects. It is a truly epic work that normally lies outside the reach of a company like Opera San José.

This season, thanks to the generous support of David W. Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute, Idomeneo will yet have its San José premiere. Mr. Packard is the visionary behind every element in this production, and he has assembled a panel of archeological experts whose knowledge of Bronze Age Greece is both wide-ranging and specific. This team knows the ruins of Crete intimately and first-hand, and is well versed in the detail of fabrics, jewelry, ship building–indeed, seemingly everything that can be known about Crete at the time of the fall of Troy. All designs, from earrings to temple façades, were filtered through these knowledgeable scholars.

The enormous size of the sets are such that some elements cannot be built in our shop, and are instead being constructed in an airplane hanger on Treasure Island by Island Creative. The painting is being executed by Evergreene Architectural Arts, a firm that does historical restoration on such prestigious buildings as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in our nation’s capital. Idomeneo is, by far, the most ambitious project ever mounted by Opera San José, so much so that it dwarfs the company’s previous works.

It is our great pleasure to have George Cleve, a noted Mozart specialist who has conducted several productions for Opera San José in the past, as the principal conductor. Brad Dalton, who recently directed Anna Karenina, Così fan tutte, and Madama Butterfly for Opera San José, has taken on the enormous task of directing. The staging of this Mozart masterpiece will be a milestone in the history of opera production in San José, and is certainly the must-see event of the season.

Speak Your Mind