23 October 2014 at 10.30am | 3 Comments
One of the most exciting and innovative things about Idomeneo is Mozart’s use of ensembles for dramatic impact. Until this opera, ensembles (bar the occasional duet) had featured little in Italian opera seria. Mozart himself stuck to the traditional pattern of arias interspersed with recitative for much of Mitridate, re di Ponto and Lucio Silla. However, for Idomeneo – perhaps in part inspired by Gluck’s operatic reforms – he wrote three major ensembles: a trio, a duet and a quartet. The quartet is the greatest, an episode of remarkable pathos.
By Act III, the opera’s four main characters are at the limits of their endurance. Idomeneo’s attempts to avoid fulfilling his rash vow to sacrifice his son Idamante have failed, and disaster has afflicted his people as a result. Idamante (who knows nothing of his father’s vow) believes that both his father and the captive Trojan Princess Ilia, whom he loves, have rejected him. Ilia secretly adores Idamante, but feels that she should not love the son of her family’s enemy. And the Greek princess Elettra, also in love with Idamante, is furious that he prefers Ilia. Early in Act III one emotional burden is lifted, when Ilia finally admits her love for Idamante. But their radiant duet of happiness is abruptly cut short.
Idomeneo and Elettra discover the lovers together. In curt recitative Idomeneo (still reluctant to confess the truth) informs Idamante that Neptune has destroyed his fatherly feelings: Idamante must leave Crete at once. Ilia appeals to Elettra, who repels her. Idamante prepares to make his farewells to Ilia and his father. Melancholy flourishes in the woodwind and low rumbles in the strings open the great quartet.
Idamante is the first to sing. His melody is resigned and dignified, but uneasy syncopations in the strings convey his agitation as he declares that he will wander alone until he dies. Ilia’s response moves the music to warmer harmonies, as she promises with radiant lyricism that ‘where you die I will die too’. A stormy mood returns as Idomeneo and Elettra enter, to similar music but with contrasting emotions: Idomeneo longs to die, Elettra calls for revenge. The lovers attempt to soothe Idomeneo, singing in sweet, consonant thirds, but soon they and he agree, to painful dissonances on the word ‘soffrir’ (suffer), that to suffer more would be impossible. Elettra joins in as – their voices alternately weaving sinuously around each other and dramatically converging – the four unite in their belief that no one ever endured a harsher fate.
The second part of this binary quartet uses the same text and draws on much of the same musical material. But it is by no means a straightforward recapitulation. Idamante’s declaration that he will wander alone is a distorted version of his opening phrase, and Ilia cuts across him with her reassurances, now agitated rather than lyrical. Elettra’s cries for vengeance are fiercer, and Idomeneo’s demands to die more urgent. Elettra joins Idamante, Idomeneo and Ilia in their declaration that ‘to suffer more is impossible’ – far more elaborate than in its first statement, and here repeated – while the chromatic dissonances as the four lament their fate are ever more intense. The quartet culminates in a despairing coda, in which the singers imitate each other in rapid, rising phrases before converging on the last two words of the phrase ‘Pena maggiore nissun provò’ (No one has ever endured such pain). Mozart reserves a last surprise for the final bars, as the singers break off abruptly, and Idamante repeats his very first phrase, closing the quartet in the same mood of sorrowful resignation with which it opened.
The Act III quartet is Mozart’s first attempt to portray the profound emotions of several characters simultaneously. Mozart would go on to write many wonderful, complex ensembles (including the end of Act II of Le nozze di Figaro) but this quartet held a special place in his heart. According to his wife, its harrowing emotions affected him so much that he could never hear it without weeping. This is not surprising: it is hard to imagine extreme suffering portrayed more powerfully or sympathetically in opera.
Idomeneo runs 3–24 November 2014. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-production with Opéra de Lyon and Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp, and is generously supported by The Friends of Covent Garden.