Mozart's Tito and Idomeneo

Mozart's Tito and Idomeneo

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Earlier this month I watched the Met’s free streaming presentation of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito; these nightly broadcasts are a generous, welcome gift to a pandemic-bound world. Yet as I watched, I couldn’t help thinking of Neal Zaslaw’s notorious essay, “Mozart As a Working Stiff.” In it, he argued that Mozart’s creative activities were motivated “most often [by] his need for cold, hard cash, of which he was perpetually short.”

Some of Zaslaw’s colleagues objected to this line of thought, but he got it right. In the 18th century, music was still a craft. Like bread, it was best baked fresh every morning. Composers spent their lives chasing after commissions, cultivating patrons, meeting deadlines.

As a pioneering freelancer in Vienna’s merciless gig economy, Mozart at first found himself in great demand as private teacher, concertizer, composer. For a while he had it all: solid income, servant, carriage, posh apartments. Then, Zaslaw tells us,

Austria fell into a foolish war with Turkey, the economy slid into a depression, and many of Mozart’s noble patrons were either at the front or hiding on their country estates. The theaters were closed, many musicians were let go, and Viennese musical life declined precipitously.

As the depression dragged on, Mozart fell into serious debt, although by 1791 he was clawing his way back. That spring he began sketching out Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a German comic opera that would be enormously successful. In July he interrupted work on it to dash off La clemenza di Tito, an old-fashioned opera seria, for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Its organizers wanted an early September performance, so he had to work fast. (Contrary to legend, Mozart was not an especially speedy composer.) But the money was okay, and he spotted an opportunity to bond with the new administration.

Mozart wouldn’t have chosen Tito as a subject himself. Its antiquated libretto had little in common with the fast-paced comic operas he had made with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Court poet Caterino Mazzolà was brought in to modernize the book, shortening it and inserting duets and ensembles; Mozart himself added three lavish ceremonial scenes.

It wasn’t enough. Two of the three principal characters remain nearly unplayable, and the convoluted plot creaks along to an altogether predictable conclusion. In theory, the title role of Tito (Titus), emperor of Rome, attempts to furnish a classical model for wise, just and beneficent tyrants. In practice, Tito’s virtuous speech and behavior make him thoroughly boring: since he’s already perfect, he can’t possibly undergo any character development.

Anti-heroine Vitellia, daughter of deposed emperor Vitellius, wants to become empress herself, so she asks her lover Sesto (Sextus) to murder Tito, his friend. Torn between love for Vitellia and his bond with Tito, Sesto rips into the best music of the evening, the stunning aria “Parto, Parto.” It’s still a favorite for mezzo-sopranos who want to show us what they’ve got. (Yes, it’s a trouser role; click here for translation.)


The Met production I watched—featuring the beautiful and talented Elīna Garanča, above—is not itself a train wreck. It’s well-cast, well-sung, and mercifully short, at least by operatic standards. But it doesn’t catch fire until Sesto delivers “Parto,” and only fitfully afterwards.

The greater tragedy of Tito is that it laid waste to Mozart’s health. Late that August, he traveled to Prague for the premiere and fell ill. Returning to Vienna, he quickly resumed a hectic professional life (details here). By the end of November he had been confined to bed, unable to finish yet another commission, the Requiem. He died on December 5.

Watching Tito reawakened my curiosity about Idomeneo, an opera seria Mozart had composed ten years earlier. So I did some research last week, relying heavily on landmark studies by Daniel Heartz and Nicholas Till. At the very least, I hoped to discover what others already knew: that Idomeneo offers as rewarding an experience for modern audiences as any other of Mozart’s top-shelf efforts.

Short answer: yes, absolutely.

Long answer: better brush up on your Greek mythology.

Idomeneo belongs to a group of works called sacrifice dramas, in which the protagonist vows to make a painful human sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity. For Greek tragedians, nothing was more dramatic—and more theatrically useful—than ritual murder, especially if it involved blood kin. Every doomed protagonist’s step bore stageworthy fruit: first, he or she painfully anticipated their foul deed; then they committed the deed itself; finally, protagonist and surviving family members found themselves wracked by guilt forever. Such guilt was both communal (= public shaming) and personal; in the latter case, pursuit by snake-haired Furies (= Eumenides, Erinyes) was a strong possibility.

These days we may be more familiar with sacrifice narratives from the Old Testament—Abraham and Isaac, Jephtha—but for Euripides, the multi-generational travails of the House of Atreus provided source material for a wealth of tragedies. The handful that concern us here relate to King Agamemnon’s daughters Iphigenia and Electra. In Iphigenia in Aulis, Agamemnon, becalmed in northern Greece with his fleet, vows to sacrifice his daughter if the gods grant favorable winds, blowing his armies towards Troy. She becomes a willing victim, exhorting the chorus to dance around the altar on her behalf.

In a later, alternative ending, a mountain hind miraculously replaces Iphigenia at the crucial moment; the goddess Diana carries her off to Tauris in Scythia. Euripedes constructed a whole new play, Iphigenia in Tauris, from that. Heartz noted a “bitter irony” in the conditions of her rescue: “as high priestess of Diana in a barbarian kingdom, Iphigenia is forced to perform human sacrifices.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s our opera for next time, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, an absolute masterpiece (not being sarcastic!) from 1779, two years before Mozart composed Idomeneo. Obviously Greek tragedy was in the air; Heartz points to several places where Mozart modeled his work after Gluck. The younger composer had lived in Paris, had read Fénelon’s Télémaque (a prime source for the Idomeneo story), and was personally close to F. M. von Grimm, the Parisian critic who championed it for operatic treatment, praising its potential for “passion and movement . . . interesting spectacle [and] strong and pathetic situations.”

And that’s how Mozart came to write a new, serious, Italian opera heavily influenced by French antecedents. It draws upon ancient myths in a modern (Enlightenment) manner, fulfilling all of Grimm’s directives. The composer took enormous pains, revising things right up until the opening and then afterwards. You can learn more here (or better yet, from Heartz and Till). See the synopsis here.

Several good audio-only recordings of Idomeneo exist. In this space I’m strongly recommending a new live staging from Madrid: Opus Arte OABD7276D. This is the Idomeneo I would use to introduce a friend to this particular opera. It re-imagines its characters not as classical Greeks nor as Mozart’s contemporaries, but as refugees and war-weary soldiers in the 21st-century Mediterranean Basin. The father-son conflict between Idomeneo and his son Idamante becomes part of an inter-generational struggle between those whose lives were shaped by war and those who now hunger for peace. The big choral scenes—another innovation borrowed from Gluck—ring truer in this staging than any other I’ve seen. Director Robert Carsen spoke at length about his vision:


Does every scene, every aria, function equally well in this bit of Regietheater? More often than not, I think. Carsen also pulls off a couple of coups de théâtre that will take your breath away. These touches work partly because Mozart and his librettist Varesco had already distanced their work from its classical Greek roots. The Enlightenment’s humane attitudes gave a new energy and deepened perspective to the old stories’ emotional conflicts. At every turn, Idomeneo emphasizes compassion over logic and absolutism. New community and family ties, exemplified in the marriage of Ilia (a Trojan prisoner of war) and Idamante (a Greek conqueror), triumph over old allegiances and unthinking adherence to nation and caste.

Here Carsen’s big themes—war and the human toll it exacts—get strong support from staging details that provide subtext: a trickle of small gestures, reactions, and subtle “business” make the storytelling more consistent and natural. It becomes clear, for example, that the soldiers plainly despise their captives. They follow Idamante’s orders only because he’s in charge. Likewise, Elettra’s eventual descent into madness results from PTSD-induced paranoia and her mania for vengeance. She too is pursued by Furies and cannot overcome them.

Because the cast is well-matched and equally strong as singers and actors, it’s difficult to single out exceptional individual performances. (In a review posted on this page, I make more detailed observations.) Conductor Ivor Bolton’s crisp, propulsive reading shows off the gorgeous wind writing sprinkled throughout the score. (Mozart had at his disposal the famed Mannheim Orchestra, then resident in Munich.) I was glad they used Mozart’s 1786 recasting of Idamante as a tenor rather than the 1781 soprano (= castrato) version; any production that emphasizes 21st-century naturalism but reverts to a trouser role would have struck a false note. Also wisely cut were two arias for Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace, originally played by a longtime member of the company; they impede the action and offer nothing essential to the story.

Sound and picture are exemplary. Two trailers for the video are available on YouTube; neither adequately conveys the theatrical power of this production’s lighting and scenic design. It needs to be viewed on the biggest screen in your home.


Header image: Cambridge students–all men–costumed as Eumenides for an 1885 University production of Aeschylus’ drama (public domain).

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