Idomeneo Synopsis

Background

Helen, the beautiful wife of King Menelaus of Greece, was carried off by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, triggering the Trojan War. Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother, rallied the other Greek kings and joined forces to lay siege to the city of Troy. One of Agamemnon’s allies was King Idomeneo of Crete, whose army helped to deliver a victory over the Trojans.

After ten long years of war, Idomeneo is finally on his way home. Some of his forces have already returned, bringing back Trojan captives including Priam’s daughter, princess Ilia. The ship carrying Ilia was hit by a storm and sank, but she was rescued from the waves by Idomeneo’s son, Idamante. Upon his own return from war, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus; Elettra’s brother, Orestes, took revenge on the unfaithful by killing them both. Elettra fled from their home in Argos, and is now taking refuge in Crete.

Act I

Island of Crete, c. 1200 B.C. At the palace, Ilia is grieving for her father and brothers, who were killed by the Greek army in the siege on Troy. But while she hates Idomeneo, she has fallen in love with his son, Idamante, who has ruled Crete in his father’s absence (“Padre, germani, addio!”–Father, brothers, farewell!). Although Idamante proclaims his love for her, Ilia, cannot bring herself to admit her feelings for him (Non ho colpa–I am not guilty). As a gesture of goodwill, Idamante releases the Trojan captives; they join the Cretans in rejoicing this newfound peace (“Godiam la pace”–Let us enjoy peace). The king’s advisor, Arbace, brings the news that the king’s returning fleet was shipwrecked in a storm and that Idomeneo has drowned. Elettra does not approve of Idamante’s decision to free the prisoners, and upon hearing the news of Idomeneo’s ruin, she realizes that her aspirations of marriage have been similarly dashed (“Tutte nel cor vi sento”–In my heart I feel you, Furies of bitter Hades).

On the coast, sailors make their way ashore, begging the gods to show mercy (“Pietà, Numi pieta”–Ye gods, have mercy!). As the storm subsides, Idomeneo staggers onto the sand alone. Spared a watery grave by Nettuno (Neptune), god of the sea, Idomeneo laments his vow to sacrifice to the god the first person he meets on land. Plagued with guilt, he imagines the ghost of his innocent victim (“Vedrommi, intorno”–I shall see about me a lamenting ghost). Eventually he sees a man approaching, his own son, Idamante. After ten years, the two men do not initially recognize each other, but when Idomeneo realizes the horrible truth of his son’s fate, he rushes away from their reunion, leaving Idamante—who knows nothing of the promise to Nettuno—terribly confused. (“Il padre adorato”–Beloved father). The surviving troops and their families rejoice over the return of their king (“Nettuno s’onori”–Let Neptune be honored).

Act II

Idomeneo looks to Arbace for advice as to how he might spare his son’s life. They agree that another victim could be sacrificed if Idamante is in exile; to get him out of the country, he will be sent to escort Elettra back to Argos. Idomeneo meets with Ilia, who is comforted by his kind words to her. Ilia declares that since she has lost everything, she accepts Crete as her new home (“Se il padre perdei”–Though I have lost my father). Idomeneo begins to suspect that she is in love with Idamante, and it dawns on him that all three of them will be victims of the gods (“Fuor del mar”–Having escaped from the sea). It seems that only Elettra, who has heard that Idamante is to escort her home to Argos, is happy: she sees that she might yet win his heart, once she has gotten him away from her rival (“Idol mio”–My dearest).

Before Idamante and Elettra can set sail for Argos, a storm breaks out and an enormous monster emerges from the sea, a sign of Nettuno’s fury (“Qual nuovo terrore!”–What new terror!). The people of Crete are terrified, and without divulging his secret vow, Idomeneo confesses that it is he who has caused the god’s displeasure (“Corriamo, fuggiamo”–Let us run, let us fly).

Act III

Ilia hopes that the breezes will carry her message of love to Idamante (“Zeffiretti lusinghieri”–flattering breezes). When he arrives to say that he is going to fight the monster, she finally admits her love directly. Idomeneo and Elettra find them together, and Idomeneo (still unable to reveal his reasons) commands again that his son leave Crete. Idamante resolves to do his father’s bidding, and they each express their individual sorrows (“Andrò ramingo, e solo”–I will go, wandering alone). Arbace reports that the people are demanding that the king deliver them from the monster, and he laments that Crete has become full of sadness (“Sventurata Sidon!”–Poor, unhappy Cydonia).

The High Priest describes the destruction and death caused by the monster (“Volgi intorno lo sguardo”–Look around you) and demands that Idomeneo name the victim who must be sacrificed to appease the gods. The king confesses that the victim is his son, Idamante. The people are wracked with grief (“O voto tremendo”–Oh, dreadful vow). The king and his priests prepare for the forthcoming sacrifice (“Accogli, o re del mar”–Receive our offering, oh king of the sea) but are interrupted by news that Idamante has slain the monster. Idamante at last understands why his father has been cold to him: out of love, not hatred. He demands that the sacrifice proceed, as this is the price for peace in Crete. Ilia volunteers to take his place. As Idomeneo is about to sacrifice his son, the voice of Jove is heard proclaiming that if Idomeneo will yield the throne to Idamante and Ilia, the gods will be satisfied. Everyone rejoices except Elettra, who is plunged into despair at the prospect of her beloved in the arms of her rival (“D’Oreste, d’Ajace”–Orestes and Ajax).

Idomeneo agrees to give up the throne, and pronounces his blessing on the union of his son and the Trojan princess. The chorus celebrates the happy couple (“Scenda Amor, scenda Imeneo”–Descend love, descend god of marriage).

From the Opera San Jose Idomeneo program - September 2011
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