This is the conclusion of my review of the Metropolitan Opera production of Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was only 24 when he composed the music for this opera. He did not write the libretto himself, but the subject matter reflects his youthful idealistic point of view at that stage of his life. The story, based on myths from ancient Greece, is used to express wholesome humanistic values such as Mercy towards prisoners of war, Compassion to one’s fellow man; Filial Piety; Family Values; and the triumph of Love over War. And unlike most grand operas, the story has a happy ending! Princess Ilia is a very lucky girl indeed: She is shown mercy in her captivity in Crete, she snags the man she loves, is accepted by her father-in-law, starts to build her own family with Idamante, and even gets a big promotion — from prisoner to Queen — it’s a real Cinderella story!
From Warrior To Father-In-Law
In Greek mythology, the “real” Idomeneus (Greek Ἰδομενεύς) was the grandson of King Minos, the guy who built the labyrinthe for the bull-headed Minotaur. Crete under King Idomeneus was a member of a far-flung military and political alliance — it was sort of like the NATO of that time — which included Mycenae, led by King Agamemnon, and Sparta, led by Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. Many of the leaders of the Greek nations were related to one another by blood or marriage; but even if they weren’t, treaty obligations would have forced them to declare war when Helen, wife of Menelaus, ran off to Troy to be with her new boyfriend, Paris Son of Priam.
During the war, Idomeneus became one of Agamemnon’s must trusted advisors, he was a brave soldier, an officer and a gentleman; he even survived a mano-a-mano fight with the legendary hero, Hector. He was one of the senior officers entrusted to hide inside the Trojan Horse. Once inside the walls of Troy, he slew 20 Greek men and 3 Amazon women. But he wasn’t a bully or a war criminal. Instead of slaying Princess Ilia, he rescued her and dispatched her back to Crete. With the intention, probably, of giving her a job in the royal palace. Little did he know that she would fall in love with his son, and that the latter would love her back.
Remember – this is an important plot point – that Princess Ilia was already safe on the island of Crete because she had travelled on an earlier boat and arrived without incident at her new home. But King Idomeneus, travelling on a later boat, ran into trouble on his voyage home. If you look at the map above, he had to sail all the way South through the Aegean Sea, and that was no holiday cruise, even in good times. But these were not good times: The God Neptune was furious with all the Greeks because, in their arrogance, they had not given him the credit and appreciation which he thought he deserved for helping them win the war. Instead, they were busy praising other Gods and Goddesses, and just patting themselves on the back. A vengeful Neptune vowed to destroy them all. Targeting Idomeneus, the God summoned an awesome storm at sea, The ship was practically torn apart, Idomeneus and his crew were about 10 seconds away from a watery death in Davy Jones’ locker. Praying desperately to Neptune, Idomeneus vowed to the God that if only his ship and crew were spared, then he would sacrifice the first living thing that he saw upon returning ashore in Crete.
That sounds like a cowardly thing to do, on the surface. However, in Idomeneo’s defense: (1) His first concern was for the safety of his crew, he didn’t give a fig about his own life; and (2) when he said “living thing” he was sort of hoping that he would encounter an animal. But remember that the Gods always have a way of tricking you, and that they always exact a very heavy price for every vow. Nothing ever comes cheap from them. It never even entered Idomeneo’s head that the first “living creature” he would encounter would be his own son, the youthful Idamante, wandering along the beach, always on the look-out for his dear Papa!
Freud and Amadeus
When Idomeneus realizes, in horror, that he has to sacrifice his own son, he acts out a strategy of snubbing the lad. At first he pretends not even to recognize him. Then he refuses to speak to him, which drives Idamante crazy. There is a method to Idomeneo’s madness: Hoping to find a way to cheat the vow, he secretly plans to send his son away into exile, preferably to Argos, accompanied by the ever-loopy Princess Elektra. (These people never learn — you can’t go back on a vow or cheat the gods of their pound of flesh!)
If this libretto had been written by Peter Shaffer, then no doubt it would have harped even more on Idamante’s Freudian longing for his father’s love. Alice Coote, who is a very good actress, manages to convey Idamante’s agony and filial piety. People new to opera, by the way, still giggle when they see a girl on stage pretending to be a boy. Especially during the love scenes! But experienced opera-goers take it all in stride; it’s all part of the tradition. Why didn’t Mozart write Idamante as a tenor? Well, it all has to do with Italian perceptions of age, and stages in life. Idamante’s dad (sung in amazing voice by Italian tenor Matthew Polenzani) is still a young man himself, maybe around 35. If he were any older, then he would be a baritone. Idamante is still a teenager, his voice hasn’t even broken yet, that’s why he’s a mezzo-soprano. And that’s why he has to be sung by a girl! Reminding people again that, when watching opera, one must suspend disbelief and imagine these characters to be much younger then the people who portray them on the stage!
The Monster Ate My Libretto
Fast forwarding through a lot of the emotional drama and various love triangles (Idamante pining for his father; Idamante pining for Ilia; Ilia pining for Idamante; Elektra pining for the Cretan crown), we get to the Sea Monster scene.
As in Greek tragedy itself, the Artistic Director chose to have most of the physical action occur offstage. This is due to the fact that the ancient Greeks, albeit proficient in the use of ropes, pulleys and cranes, had not yet mastered the technology of realistic gore. For example, in Oedipus Rex a supernumerary dashes onstage to report: “Hey, Oedipus just gouged his own eyes out.” Similarly, in the opera Idomeneo, Priests of Neptune and various other members of the chorus rush onstage to report that “Hey, a giant sea monster is ravaging the island!”
Now, if this were a Hollywood movie, they would actually show Oedipus slicing his eyeballs; and they would also show the Sea Monster slithering around and snacking on the Cretans. Personally, I think that the Met, with its budget, could have sprung for a Sea Monster. Maybe they could have recycled the Dragon from Siegfried of a couple of seasons ago. Just pasted on more scales, or suckers, or something… Instead, they chose to shock us by having a dead half-naked child carried onto the stage, a victim of the Monster. The boy wasn’t actually dead of course — he was ACTING! — but it was still quite an explosive piece of staging. Personally, like I said, I would have preferred the rubber monster.
We know, of course, that the Sea Monster works for Neptune. It’s the same damned monster who terrorized the citizens of Troy and murdered the priest Laocoön in Hector Berlioz’ masterpiece Les Troyens. That opera featured Princess Ilia’s older sister Cassandra, the seer whose fate was, that nobody ever listened to her. Even though she was always right. About everything.
Deus Ex Machina Ending
Before I end this story, I will mention that the Live in HD transmission included a real gem during one of the intermissions: A short documentary film showing the conductor, Maestro James Levine, as he was back in the 1980’s rehearsing a Met production of Ariadne auf Naxos. This short film by itself was worth the price of the whole show; and also served to remind me that it has been quite a long time since I have seen a decent production of Ariadne. A brilliant but under-performed opera by Richard Strauss which combines classical Greek mythology with Commedia dell’arte. One can only wonder what would have happened, had Mozart taken this approach to his opera: Ilia and Idamante singing a love duet in the background while Harlequin and Columbina pelt each other with rotten vegetables?
Oh yes – the ending! First there is the Good News: Brave young Idamante slays the nasty Sea Monster (offstage, it goes without saying — and once again, I would have paid extra if they had shown Idamante at least carrying the bloody pelt of the dead monster). Then the Bad News: the boy’s heroic feat does not earn him any reprieve, he still needs to be put to death to save the people of Crete. There’s gratitude for you!
Almost mad with grief, King Idomeneus sharpens his sword. At first he just can’t do it. He loves his son dearly, and he just can’t bring himself to thrust that sword into the boy’s beating heart. But the Priests of Neptune urge him on: “Go on, you gotta do it!” they sing. Idomeneus summons all his strength of will. “I’m good,” he sings. “I think I can do it now!” Idamante accepts his fate: Now that he knows the truth, he is so overjoyed to learn that his father truly does love him, that he doesn’t even care about dying. But Ilia still cares, she throws herself in front of the sword, offering her own life in return for her boyfriend’s.
If this were Verdi or Puccini, then Ilia would be stabbed, perhaps accidentally, and die a painful death, while singing her guts out (literally). But you’re not listening to me, I already told you there is a happy ending. Idomeneus doesn’t have to kill his son. Miraculously, Ilia’s willingness to die in Idamante’s place appeased the God! Neptune reckons the vow has been met; or at least “close enough for government work,” as they say in America.
You remember how we spent the last four-and-a-half hours watching that backdrop of giant Neptune face with its open maw? Well, now that Mouth finally speaks and utters judgement. And, even better, the voice we hear is the deep authoritative voice of bass-baritone Eric Owens, who has served throughout the transmission as our Live in HD host! Now he has to dash backstage to sing Neptune’s lines. But at least he’s all voice-offstage, so he didn’t have to put on a costume.
Neptune’s message: “Stay your sword!” he intones. “Idomeneo, I command you to abdicate your throne in favor of your son…”
[and if this were Commedia dell’arte, then Idomemeo would pretend not to hear him and quickly slice open Idamante’s chest.]
Like the actual Deux Ex Machina that he is, Neptune proceeds to sort everything out and decide how the story ends: Idomeneus will abdicate his throne. Idamante and Ilia will get married and rule Crete together, joining the two former enemies (Greeks and Trojans) in harmony and good governorship. The Cretans rejoice. Ex-King Idomeneus blesses the young couple and walks off into the sunset. Everybody is happy, except for Elektra, who promptly throws a fit, drops dead, and is carted off the stage like a piece of luggage.