Idomeneo’s Precipitous Pledge to Neptune

Met Music Director, James Levine conducted majestically Mozart’s early masterpiece Idomeneo, which was first seen at the New York Opera House in 1982 under his baton starring Luciano Pavarotti as the title character, Ileana Cotrubas as Ilia, Hildegard Behrens as Elettra, and Frederica von Stade as Idamante.

The Italian language oeuvre by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the story of an oath made by Idomeneo to ensure his safe return home to Crete, following the Trojan war. The tale is a melange of Greek myths and characters, and specifically brings to mind the story of Jephthah from the biblical Book of Judges. The story circles around Idomeneo’s precipitous pledge made to Neptune. The King of Crete, on his way home from the Trojan war, risks of his sinking with his ship and survives only due to the grace of the God of the Sea. In return, Idomeneo agrees to sacrifice the first mortal he finds to Neptune. It so happens that the man that rushes to see him is his own son, Idamante. A love triangle weaves in this dramatic twist of events, as Elettra falls in love with Idamante whose heart belongs to Ilia, a Trojan princess. Despite all circumstances seem doomed to a tragic ending, as Idomeneo is about to allow his own son to be sacrificed, Neptune intervenes. He allows Idamante to survive as long as can take over the throne, in place of his father and marry Ilia. The moral seems to tell us that sons should not bear the sins of their fathers.

Idomeneo was first staged at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich in 1781, conducted by the 25-year-old Mozart, starring the great 18th century tenor Anton Raaff. In 1786, a concert version of the opera was staged at the Palais Auersperg in Vienna, and for this performance, Mozart made some adjustments and additions to the piece, which are frequently used in present stagings of the opera.

The libretto by Giambattista Varesco adapts a French text by Antoine Danchet, which had been set to music by André Campra as Idoménée in 1712. The opera clearly draws inspiration from Metastasio in its overall layout, the type of character development, and the highly poetic language used in the various numbers and the secco and stromentato recitatives.

Mozart and Varesco were commissioned in 1780 by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria for a court carnival, and Idomeneo clearly uses the framework of the opera seria: the typical format favored by rustic courts, for the way idealised noble characters function with a clear delineation between action and reflection. This is precisely’s Idomeneo’s pursuit: explore the motivations and emotions of humans whose fates seem beyond their own control.

Emeritus James Levine conducted his orchestra and singers remarkably in a glorious performance, where the impressive cast and chorus showed brilliant ability to command the attention of theatre audiences with their beguiling vocal folds. Elza van den Heever as Elettra, captivated for exceptional stage presence, as she battled for the affection of Alice Coote (skillfully playing Idomeneo’s son, Idamante), against the tender and resplendent Nadine Sierra in her role debut as Ilia. Matthew Polenzani in his Met role debut as King Idomeneo  was excellent, supported by Alan Opie as Idomeneo’s confidant Arbace. The refined production and costumes by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle were exquisitely rekindled by the revival stage director David Kneuss and light designer Gil Wechsler.


Long neglected along with other works of this era, Idomeneo now holds a firm place in the repertoire as the first of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. This latest performance at the Metropolitan Opera, which is part of The Met Live HD series released in worldwide cinemas, triumphantly incited a standing ovation.