On January 29, in 1781, Mozart’s first real operatic masterpiece Idomeneo, opera seria in three acts, premiered in Munich, Germany, with Mozart conducting.
Like Iphigenia in Aulis, Idomeneno is considered a sacrifice opera in that the story contains the perennially tragic story of the younger generation condemned to death by the vows or treaties made by their elders.
Idomeneo, the king of Crete, is returning home from the Trojan Wars during a storm, when he vows to sacrifice to Neptune (the Greek god Poseidon) the first living creature he meets ashore in return for his own safety. The first person he sees turns out to be his own son Idamante, and Idomeneo attempts to escape from fulfilling his vow. Idamante, meanwhile, is loved by orphaned prisoner Ilia and by the jealous Electra.
According to the Penguin Opera Guide, during the time when he was writing Idomeneo, Mozart was saddled with Karl Theodor‘s orchestra and opera company from Mannheim. Mozart considered the actors playing Idomeneo and Idamante “the two worst ever born” and that this perception influenced the music he wrote for them. Idamante was played by an untalented castrato Mozart dubbed, “amato castrato del Prato” but since castrati tend to be in short supply in modern times, it’s not uncommon for the role to be sung by a soprano.
Below, is a conventional interpretation of Idomeneo with Pavarotti singing the title role, clipped from performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1982, with Frederica von Stade as Idamante. Wow, what a set!
Fast forward to 2006, when the Salzburg Festival presented a starkly beautiful production of Idomeneo to celebrate Mozart’s 250th, featuring Ramon Vargas as Idomeneo, soprano Magdalena Kozena as Idamante and Ekaterina Siurina as Ilia. In the following clip, Kozena is completely believable as Idamante–one of the best pants role performances I’ve ever seen.