STUMP » Articles » Lenten Opera Nugget: Mozart, Idomeneo, and the operatic ensemble » 21 March 2014, 02:23

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Lenten Opera Nugget: Mozart, Idomeneo, and the operatic ensemble  


21 March 2014, 02:23

I already showed you a Mozartian trio with Don Giovanni being dragged to hell (though it’s more of a duet than trio), but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Most of Mozart’s best ensembles are comic, so I’m saving those for Sundays and the Easter feast season, but this quartet is appropriate and haunting.

Here is a quick set up: Idomeneo, King of Crete, is one of those Greeks who went off to the Trojan war and had a lot of trouble getting home (you may have heard of Odysseus’s problems). He got shipwrecked and to survive, he promised Poseidon (here Neptune or Nettun in Italiano) that he would sacrifice the first person he saw when he got ashore. Which was his son Idamonte. Whups.

Meanwhile, Idamante is caught in a love triangle with Electra (you may have heard of her family troubles from Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripedes) and Ilia, a Trojan princess. Idamante is not interested in the very crazy and vengeful Electra, and Ilia is conflicted for falling in love with the Greek Idamante given that, ya know, the Greeks destroyed her city, killed her family, and enslaved her. But she gets over it.

I am not giving more details, because then this quick set up is no longer quick.

The quartet I am going to embed, in two versions, is near the end of the opera. Ilia and Idamante have finally declared their love for each other, they get caught by the king, Idamante is supposed to be exiled from Crete (the king thinks that the way he can prevent Neptune from killing his son is by putting him on a boat and going to some other polis. Great thinking, dad.)

So Idamante and Ilia despair of being parted, Idamante is grieving over his father seemingly rejecting him, Electra is pissed that Ilia asked her to comfort her, the successful girl in the love triangle, and the king is rending his garments that Neptune is forcing him to do this.

Here’s the quartet:

Now, up to this point, I’ve given you only one version of a piece. The reason I ran the one above is it had English subtitles, gives a bit of the setup, and it has a traditional staging and costuming. To give you a taste. There’s one aspect of it I don’t like — Idamante being played by a tenor.

Now, Mozart did write the piece for a man. Just one missing his testicles.

In the wikipedia article on the castrato the part was written for, we find out this about this quartet

Mozart wrote the quartet AndrĂ² ramingo e solo to start with Idamante, but the style was completely new and nothing like it had ever been seen in opera seria. None of the singers were up to the task and they all reacted against it. Mozart wrote to his father in the depths of despair, blaming the worst reaction on Dal Prato. He said Dal Prato’s voice would not be so bad if it came out from somewhere other than his mouth. He was completely unable to intone the quartet, Mozart said, had no method, and “sang like a young boy auditioning for a part in the chapel choir”. Mozart must have been fond of this quartet because he arranged for a private recital two and a half years later, with himself singing the role of Idamante (in a transcription for tenor). He burst into tears and had to run out of the room, and not even his wife Constanze could talk him into coming back.

Poor Mozart. So he did rewrite it for tenor, but we’ve got much better singers now than Mozart had to work with (think of opera singers as the pop stars of the day, and the castrati as the pop starlets, and you’re not far off.)

I have seen the quarter both with tenors and with women singing Idamante’s role (I have not seen/heard a countertenor yet, so no opinion). But of the youtube varieties of the quartet I can find with a soprano voice for Idamante, this is my favorite (though I like neither the staging nor the costuming… and forget about the acting. This is not about the acting)

Heartbreaking. Gorgeous. Two sopranos for Idamante and Ilia means the voices can blend so much better than a soprano and tenor.

(Also, I don’t much like tenors. Baritone or gtfo, imo.)

Anyway, given all the opera fanatics out there, it’s not surprising there are awesome opera videos on youtube.

I do weep for Mozart, who only rarely got singers equal to his compositions. But do not weep for us, because we can get the best singers, on demand, at any time.

I pray for the souls in Purgatory, but especially for the repose of the soul of Mozart. I hope he gets to hear his music perfectly performed, always. That’s my idea of heaven.

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