The Cast

spacer Idomeneo


Motivation/Role Play Exercises
The Vow
The Chorus

The Vow

(Note to teacher: In the opera seria (serious or tragic operas) of Mozart's time, it was customary to use a castrato, a male singer who was surgically altered before puberty to maintain his high pure voice for life. Rather than use a castrato, Mozart gave this role to a female mezzo-soprano in trousers, hence the female sound in the role of Idamante, Idomeneo's son.)

The premise around which most of the opera revolves is the vow that Idomeneo made in which he swore that he would offer up as a sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea, the first person that greets him on shore if he should survive the storm at sea. We become aware of this vow in the second scene of Act I, when Idomeneo has succeeded in landing safely ashore. He reflects on the physical anguish he has suffered in a long recitative. (Note: most Italian opera seria up until Idomeneo {1781} had a dry, secco recitative, usually accompanied by chords on a harpsichord. Idomeneo was advanced for its day in that many of the recitatives are accompanied, a kind of transition between the dry recitative and the actual aria or ensemble.) In this opera many of the recitatives shift between the secco and the accompanied. Near the end of this recitative he begins to regret the vow, "Oh voto insano, atroce"--("O insane, hateful vow"). In the aria to which this leads, "Vedrommi intorno" ("I shall see about me"), he expresses the torment he is going through. The orchestral accompaniment underneath his opening phrase conveys this restless feeling. The appogiatura (accented non-harmonic tone) grace note in the third measure and the accented G sharp in the vocal line in the fourth measure add tension to the melodic line (Ex. #1).

Tremolo strings, augmented 6th harmony (6th measure), appogiaturas and a faster tempo all heighten the effect of his torment as he cries out "qual spavento, qual dolore" ("what horror, what grief").

Idamante, his son, whom he hasn't seen since he was a very young child, comes to greet him. Idamante, of course, is unaware of Idomeneo's vow. At first they do not recognize each other. Their dialogue is in the dry recitative, harpsichord accompanied style. However, as soon as Idomeneo recognizes him, the texture of the recitative changes to an accompanied one, to heighten the tension. As Idamante senses the coldness emanating from his father, "Ah qual gelido orror m'ingombra i sensi" ("Ah, what icy horror numbs my senses"), the accompaniment becomes more active, with tension-filled dominant and diminished chord underpinnings (Ex. #3).

His poignant aria, with a simple melody outlining the F major arpeggio, expresses his love and bewilderment at having found his father alive and safe, yet distant to his own son, "Il padre adorato" ("My beloved father") (Ex. #4).

In Act II, Idomeneo discovers that his son Idamante is in love with the Trojan princess Ilia who had been captured earlier and brought to Crete, the locale of the opera. Idomeneo now realizes that to carry out his vow will not only cost Idamante's life and his own anguish, but the happiness of Ilia as well. Though saved from the sea, he still feels the rage of Neptune. In a tour de force of a aria, "Fuor del mar" ("Saved from the sea"), Idomeneo asserts that the "raging sea within (his) bosom" is more fearsome than the ocean's waves. Though not terribly high in a tenor's range, its long phrases, roulades and coloratura passagework are the stuff of which a heroic tenor is made. (See Ex. #5 for one such illustration.)

Near the end of Act II, another storm arises at the seacoast. Idomeneo admits that his cruel vow has instilled the wrath in Neptune, god of the sea and declares that he alone should be punished. He is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son. All this is in the form of a recitative accompanied by furious ascending and descending scales and tension-creating dominant 7th and diminshed chords (Ex. #6).

Just before the end of the opera the voice of Neptune himself, heretofore only heard about via the chorus and orchestra in the form of storms and calming of same, is heard vocally for the only time in the opera. It is the only bass voice in the opera and he is heard without being seen. In a slow stately rhythm, accompanied only by the low brass, featuring 3 stentorian trombones in close, sustained harmony, he declares that Idomeneo can be absolved from his vow by ceasing to reign and letting his son Idamante be King and Ilia his bride (Ex. #7).

The Chorus:

Mozart made more extensive and dramatic use of the chorus in Idomeneo than in almost any other of his operas. Even in Mozart's more famous operas such as Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte, the chorus is sparingly used and is rarely nothing more than a small group of peasants, acting as mere window dressing to the more important interactions among the main characters. But here, the chorus becomes an important protagonist in the action. We hear the chorus for the first time in Act I, scene i as the scene takes place on the coast of Crete during a raging storm. It is a chorus of men divided into 2 parts--an offstage chorus of those on board a shipwreck and those on shore. Mozart wrote an antiphonal chorus in the key of C minor, pitting one group against the other. And within each chorus there are staggered entrances. This juxtaposition can be clearly noticed in example #8.

For contrast, note the lilting delicate chorus in E major, where a full chorus including men and women sing in virtually similar rhythms expressing the calm of the sea and a soft breeze (Ex. #9).

Idamante and Elettra are about to embark on a ship and leave the country. However, as they approach the ship, a mighty storm arises. Lightning sets fire to the ship and a monster appears among the waves. In horror, the people ask who is the cause of this anger. An agitated trill in the strings in F minor leads into a chorus of outcry, "Quel nuovo terrore!" ("What new terror!") (Ex. #10).

After Idomeneo admits that he is the guilty one, the chorus resumes in a unison arpeggiated D minor declamation in the unusual meter of 12/8 (Ex. #11). They continue antiphonally, exhorting each other to run and flee. After much agitation, the storm dies down with a subtle, gradual, graceful transition to a peaceful ending in D Major.

In the final act, the chorus has one more major appearance. After Idomeneo has revealed that his own son Idamante is the subject of the sacrifice because of his careless vow, the chorus in a slow deliberate rhythm to a triplet accompaniment exclaims "Oh voto tremendo!" ("Oh terrible vow") (Ex. #12).

Note the tension of the augmented 6th in the second measure. After the High Priest of Neptune intercedes to try to annul the vow, the chorus reprises these sentiments (Ex. #13).

Note the layered entrances starting from the soprano down to the bass. A final homophonic chorus in D Major ends the opera on a note of rejoicing after Idomeneo renounces the throne and his son Idamante becomes King and Ilia becomes his bride.

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