The key event that drives the plot in “Idomeneo” is a ruler making a promise that he is reluctant to fulfill, which leads to disaster. The situation sounds contemporary but the opera takes place shortly after the Trojan War. The Mozart opera, which premiered in 1781 when the composer was just 25 years old, is back at the Metropolitan Opera with a first-class cast and the venerable James Levine conducting.
The title character is the king of Crete, who has been fighting in support of the Greeks in the Trojan War. He has left his son Idamante to rule Crete in his absence and the young man is irresistible to the women around him: Ilia, the daughter of the Trojan king, Priam; and Elettra, Agamemnon’s daughter.
Aside from the fact that the two were on opposite sides in the war, both have problems. The first is a captive and the second is somewhat unhinged. She avenged the murder of her father by killing the responsible party, her mother.
When the opera begins, Idamante declares his love for Ilia and orders the Trojan prisoners released. An announcement is made that the victorious fleet sailing back to Crete has been shipwrecked and the king drowned. In fact, Idomeneo survived the disaster by rashly promising Neptune that he would sacrifice the first man he sees on land.
He is horrified when the first person he encounters turns out to be his son, Idamante. The young man senses that his father is not especially happy to see him and wonders what has caused the rift between them.
The second act starts with Idomeneo and his advisor Arbace, in whom he has confided, trying to figure out how to save Idamante. They come up with the idea that they will send him out of the country by having him accompany Elettra back to her homeland. She welcomes the news, hoping that she will win over Idamante while her rival remains behind in Crete.
Before the ship departs, a storm descends and a sea monster wreaks havoc upon the inhabitants of Crete. Idomeneo realizes that he is responsible because he violated his pledge and offers himself as a sacrifice, but to no avail.
The high priest demands the identity of the person who is supposed to be put to death. Idomeneo reluctantly reveals that it is his own son. However, before the sacrifice can be performed, Idamante slays the monster. When he discovers the real reason for his father’s apparent coldness toward him, Idamante expresses his willingness to die in order to save his people. The lovelorn Ilia offers herself as a stand-in.
Before anyone else can offer their lives, the disembodied voice of Neptune offers this compromise: the sacrifice will be nullified if Idomeneo gives up his throne to his son. The offer is immediately accepted. Thus, Ilia and Idamante and the Cretans live happily ever after, except for the unbalanced Elettra.
The director and designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1982 production of “Idomeneo” still looks impressive. Sometimes his immense sets overwhelm the action (as in his “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Met Opera) but here, with its heroes, gods, and monsters, it seems just right.
The 1982 production starred Luciano Pavarotti. Taking over the role, American tenor Matthew Polenzani may not be as big of a star, but his singing is unfailingly refined with the proper dramatic fire. His renditions of the arias “Vedrommi intorno” and “Fuor del mar” were among the high points of the performance.
Nadine Sierra is a lovely Ilia, moving gracefully and delivering lovely singing, especially her “Padre, germani, addio.” Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote may not look especially boyish as Idamante but sang with taste. Elza van den Heever is a fiery Elettra, making a strong impression from her Act 1 aria “Tutte nel cor” to her mad scene in Act 3.
Baritone Alan Opie was scheduled as Arbace but he canceled for health reasons. Gregory Schmidt was a talented replacement, giving a fine rendition of the Act 2 aria, “Se il tuo duol.” The off-stage voice of Neptune is supplied by the outstanding bass Eric Owens.
James Levine, who conducted the 1982 production, returned and, as expected, led with distinction. “Idomeneo” is not one of Mozart’s better known operas, but it is filled with beautiful music, and here it is performed by an impeccable cast.
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 4 hours
Closes: March 25
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.