promise of idomeneo, The
Neptune’s anger rules over the whole opera of Idomeneo, to be appeased only in the moment when the cruel sacrifice he demands is about to be accomplished.1 The motif of the storm is present from the overture (in D major). For the first production in Munich, in 1781, the stage designer Lorenz Quaglio undoubtedly took great pleasure in constructing the set. The spectators must have made out an ideal palace and a picturesque port skirted by foaming waves, a temple of Neptune with trompel’oeil decorations which brought together dolphins, tridents, and horses with flowing manes. These decorative elements might have served for many previous operas. A whole memory of storms in literature and music might have awakened when Mozart made the superb appeals of the two choruses-vicino and lontano-ring out in a pathetic entreaty: Pieta, Numi, pieta! (I, 5).
The most literate of the spectators had perhaps already encountered Idomeneus in the passages of the Iliad that recount his warlike exploits and had glimpsed his name in the Aeneid. Above all, for most of them, this name had become inseparable from Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (1699), which was among the favorite reading of all Europe in the eighteenth century. This book written for the education of a prince, and which lectures to kings, had conveyed a whole social and political morality, which still remained alive among the same men who gave the first impulse to the French Revolution. Rousseau had served as relay. The education of his Emile is completed by a journey during which the institutions of various nations are to be studied. His tutor inculcates principles into him which sum up the essentials of the Social Contract. But it is with “a Telemachus in hand” that teacher and pupil travel. While the normative principles of the contract establish a “scale of measurement” for judging various existing societies, Fenelon’s story presents models and counter– models of monarchs. The princes and governments of the real world will be compared with them: “We seek happy Salento and the good Idomeneus made wise by dint of his misfortunes.” Fenelon had constructed his imaginary figures of princes from contemporary experiences. Now sixty years later Rousseau still advises thinking of these figures in order to interpret the political reality of the moment.
In Fenelon the man whom Rousseau calls “the good Idomeneus” does not merit this reassuring qualifier from the start. He is first of all an infanticide king, the murderer of his own son; he becomes, in a second career, a bold sovereign, exaggeratedly attracted to the glory of arms and the taste for magnificence, before growing wise thanks to Mentor’s lessons. We must clearly distinguish, on the one hand, the Cretan destiny of Idomeneus, drawn according to ancient sources, and, on the other hand, his role, this time invented by Fenelon, as head of a nascent State, the kingdom of Salento on the coast of Calabria. This is the moment when the political novel takes over from the myth. Contrary to Louis XIV, whom he resembles in many traits of character, Idomeneus renounces conquest and is able to make peace with his neighbors. The prosperous fields and laborious capital are schools of virtue, where law rules over the monarch himself. Everything here is brought down to a “noble and frugal simplicity,” and, in the harmony of a strictly hierarchical society, everything combines in a common utility.
The ancient legend was transmitted in scattered texts, or in glosses (Servius), which the mythographers of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century collected.2 There is no complete story or play that develops the subject before Fenelon. The fifth book of the Telemachus is thus the first coherent literary treatment of the return hindered by Neptune, the son’s murder, and the king’s exile.
Fenelon’s text, full of borrowings from the ancients, is beautiful in its elocution and its rhythm. You think you are hearing the “passionate declamation”3 that the archbishop of Cambrai thought he heard again in the music of his time. The reported account that retraces the history of Idomeneus’ “misfortunes” links speeches together which seem to have the same function as recitatives and arias.
During the storm, the hero made a bold promise in order to save his life:
O powerful god, he cried, thou who holdest empire over the waves, deign to hearken to an unfortunate man! If thou lettest me see the isle of Crete again despite the fury of the winds, I shall sacrifice to thee the first head that presents itself to my sight.4
The storm subsides. “But cruel Nemesis, the pitiless goddess, who watches over the punishment of men, and above all of proud kings, pushed Idomeneus with a fatal and invisible hand.” Reaching land at last, horror seizes him when he discovers the “first head”: it is his own son whom he must sacrifice. The boy is astonished and throws himself on his father’s neck:
O my father, he said, whence comes this sadness? After so long an absence, are you angry to find yourself again in your own kingdom and to be the joy of your son? What have I done? You turn away your eyes for fear of seeing me!
Idomeneus does not reply but invokes the divinity again:
O Neptune, what have I promised thee! At what price hast thou kept me from shipwreck! Send me back to the waves and rocks which, in smashing me, should have ended my sad life. Let my son live! O cruel god, here, take my blood and spare his.
Idomeneus turns his sword against himself, without heeding the advice of a priest who reproaches him for his cruelty and invites him to make a substitute sacrifice of “a hundred bulls whiter than snow.” The son then offers his own life:
Behold me, father. Your son is ready to die to appease the god. Do not draw down his wrath upon you. I die content, since my death will fend off yours. Strike, father; fear not to find me a son unworthy of you, who is afraid to die.
In Mozart’s opera, this will be aria 27, No, la morte io non pavento. But while opera seria-by the convention of the genre-multiplies dangers in order to end with a happy denouement, Fenelon’s Idomeneus commits the irreparable crime. In a state of supernatural frenzy, “quite beside himself, and as if torn by the infernal Furies, [he] surprises all those looking closely on: he sinks his sword into the child’s heart.” The account of the child’s death borrows a vegetal simile from Virgil:
The child falls in his own blood. His eyes cloud over with the shadows of death, he opens them weakly to the light, but hardly has he found it when he can bear it no longer. As a beautiful lily in the midst of the fields, cut off at the root by the plow’s blade, languishes and can sustain itself no longer, though it has not yet lost that vivid whiteness and that brilliance that charms the eye. But the earth nourishes it no longer, and its life is extinguished. So the son of Idomeneus, like a young and tender flower, is cruelly cut down from his earliest age.
In his bewilderment, Idomeneus marches to the city calling out for his son. The people, overcome by a different frenzy, force Idomeneus to flee over the sea with his companions.
The scrupulous fulfillment of the promise made to the divinity turns out, then, to have been the greatest sin. Undoubtedly, in the perspective of Fenelon’s thought, Idomeneus’ offense lay in making a self-interested bargain and wanting to force the divine decision. Here, as in his theological work, Fenelon refers to a morality of consent, which demands a passive surrender to the divine will. But we also perceive, on a more archaic level, all that Fenelon was unable to repress of the belief of communities that feel threatened by the uncleanness of their chief and practice the ritual of the pharmakos by expelling the great guilty one.
When Telemachus reaches Salento some years later (book VIII), the now thriving city seems to him like a flower. You would think that Fenelon recalled his previous comparison of the sacrificed child with a mowed-down flower, as if a sacred bond existed between the votive sacrifice performed on Crete and the new city built on the Italian coast:
Telemachus gazed in admiration at this nascent city, similar to a young plant, which, having been nourished by the sweet dew of the night, feels from morning on the rays of sun that come to embellish her: she grows, she opens her tender buds, she spreads her green leaves, she expands her fragrant flowers in a thousand new colors; at each moment that one sees her, one finds a new brilliance in her. So the new city of Idomeneus flourished on the shore of the sea; each day, each hour, she grew in magnificence and showed from afar to strangers on the sea new ornaments of architecture which rose up into the sky.
It is tempting to interpret the city-plant as a substitute figure for the child as cut flower: she is his resurrection. And the son is reborn yet again under another countenance, that is, in a living person. For when Telemachus appears before Idomeneus, the latter not only recognizes the features of Ulysses in him, but offers to adopt the son who wanders from shore to shore searching for his father: “Yes, you are the son of Ulysses; but you shall also be mine.”5 Telemachus is henceforth placed under the sign of a double sonship. In this scene of welcoming, a frenzy, that is, a mark of heroic intensity, intervenes almost symmetrically in relation to the preceding transports of the murderous father and the indignant people: this mark of intensity is expressed by the visionary ecstasy of a priest suddenly “beside himself.” The prophetic words are spoken during a solemn sacrifice, in which Idomeneus offers Jupiter a hundred bulls to promote his victories. Here we come upon a new symmetry: are these not the same “hundred bulls” that Idomeneus’ friends in Crete had proposed that he sacrifice to Neptune in place of his son? The heralded future promises Idomeneus success in his wars, thanks to the help of Telemachus. The latter, at the end of the story, will receive the promise of a double inheritance. In the denouement, when the return to Ithaca, and thus the suture with the last cantos of the Odyssey, is finally accomplished, we know that Telemachus will wed Antiope, the daughter of Idomeneus. The murder of the nameless son will have been only a negative moment in the series of Idomeneus’ trials. There will be restored to him-as to Job-not the entirety, but an ample substitute for what he lost through his offense.
There is undoubtedly a connection between the infanticide committed on Crete and the founding of Salento. This might be an occasion for asking ourselves, as we turn to the legendary background of this story, about the blood spilled by the founders of cities. I am thinking of fratricide: Romulus, the murderer of Remus. Of infanticide: Theseus, the first king of Athens, provoking the death of Hippolytus; of Brutus, founder of the Roman republic, condemning his son to death. And so on. (We would be very fortunately enlightened in this research by the works of Vernant, Burkert, and Detienne.) A glance at the myth of William Tell, treated so often in the eighteenth century, would show us a significant reversal: the infanticide is demanded by the oppressor, but provokes a founding revolt. It would be fitting to ask ourselves at the same time about the myths concerning the price asked by the divinities who guard the great thresholds. Passage beyond the limits is not granted without sacrificial compensation. However, we shall make a detour before turning our attention to that.
The Novel Line, the Opera Line
Fenelon’s book had its imitators. The public warmly welcomed these other educative travels. The best known are The Travels of Cyrus (1727), by the “chevalier” Ramsay, Fenelon’s disciple, and above all the Sethos (1731) of the abbe Terrasson. Voltaire’s Candide, in which Pangloss takes the place of Mentor, will parody the genre. The Sethos is not without importance: it takes up the motif of princely travel and places it in an Egyptian and Masonic setting. We witness an initiation into the mysteries of Isis. Comparisons have been made with the Thermos, King of Egypt on which Mozart worked in 1778-1779, and above all with the libretto of The Magic Flute. An obvious resemblance relates the Mentor of Fenelon, the “wise Amedes” who guides Sethos, and Shickeneder’s Sarastro. The pedagogical story could thus oscillate between pseudo-mythological narration and the Marcher.
Chance-but is it only chance?-made it so that the inaugural opera and the penultimate opera in the series of Mozart’s masterpieces derive from the same line of fabulous fictions. They set to music a pedagogical fable and the inevitable confrontation of opposed forces. Now, princely pedagogy lends itself to identification on the part of readers and spectators: it is the equivalent of a universal prototype of the Bildung of individuals. These fictions invite us to take possession of ourselves, at the same time offering an image of what people have the right to expect of good government.6 Initiatory experience is the fundamental theme: what virtues must one acquire and what trials must one go through to deserve to wield power? A common source-Fenelon and his great pedagogical novel-gives us a better understanding of the relation between the two operas. The tragedy of succession, the danger of the interruption of dynastic continuity, which characterize so many aspects of classical tragedy and opera, could interest an audience infinitely wider than that of the court. Succeeding the father and acceding to oneself are one and the same arrival. A message based on these legendary monarchic images could perdure down to our democratic era, since it is quite likely that in the theatrical peril of the inheritor of the kingdom each of us will read an allegory of what threatens his own self. We also know that the aesthetic ideas and political morality of Fenelon kept their full actuality throughout the century. Fenelon stoutly questions warring kings: “Have you not done needless harm to your enemies? These enemies are still men, still your brothers, if you are a true man yourself.”7
A Master’s Apprenticeships
Leopold Mozart sought to inculcate into his son an admiration of Fenelon; we know this from a letter he wrote from Paris in 1766. He had just come back from Holland, after passing through Cambrai with Wolfgang. Leopold Mozart had insisted on making a pilgrimage to the archbishop’s tomb, and makes it known in pedantic tones: “I contemplated… the grave and the marble bust of the great Fenelon, who by his Telemachus, by his book on the education of girls, by his dialogues of the dead, by his fables and other religious or profane writings, has made himself immortal.”8 Fenelon’s book would turn up one day in Wolfgang’s hands. During his stay in Bologna in 1770, that is, at the moment of the great confirmation of his musical accomplishment, Mozart announced to his sister that he was reading Fenelon’s Telemachus, and that he was “already in the second part.”9 The indication remains quite vague. Is it the second book? Is it the second volume? Let us dream that Wolfgang paid attention to the story of the sacrificed child.
In 1778, Mozart may have heard mention of Fenelon again in his Parisian conversations. In July and August, after his mother’s death, he took lodgings in the Chaussee d’Antin with Madame d’Epinay and Melchior Grimm. Now, Grimm was an old acquaintance.10 In his Literary Correspondence, fifteen years earlier, Grimm had pointed to the child prodigy’s talents; another meeting had taken place in 1766. In 1778, after passing through Mannheim and meeting Aloysia Weber, Mozart felt his ambition as a dramatic creator growing, with the full awareness of his abilities as a composer. But he could find no way to use his forces and lamented the difficulty of “finding a good poem . . . La poesie, which was the one thing the French could be proud of, is becoming less good day by day.”11 He had undoubtedly spoken of this with Grimm, who had been asking himself for a long time if there was a Frenchman capable of writing poetry suitable for music: “A mortal chill and bad taste are the divinities that inspire the makers of French opera.”12 Grimm, as it happened, was fully convinced of the great principle that Mozart never ceased to uphold: “In an opera, poetry must absolutely be the obedient daughter of music.”13 In the important article, “Lyric Poem,” in the Encyclopedia, Grimm had formulated principles of simplicity and rapidity that reinforced in advance the demands that Mozart’s missives would impose on Varesco. All verbal excess must be combatted, for it slows down the dramatic action. The portrayal of passion must be left to the musician. Prima la musica:
After having … named the subject and created the situation, after having prepared it, the poet supplies only its masses, which he abandons to the composer’s genius; it is for the latter to give them full expression and to develop all the detail of which they are capable . . . The poet must never be afraid of setting his musician too hard a task. As rapidity is an inseparable characteristic of music, and one of the principal causes of its prodigious effects, the pace of the lyric poem must always be rapid… There is even this difference between the lyric poet and the tragic poet, that as the latter becomes eloquent and verbose, the former must become precise and sparing of words, because the eloquence of impassioned moments belongs entirely to the musician.
Grimm, moreover, had been rather closely interested in the theatrical treatment of the subject of Idomeneus. In 1764, the poet Antoine-Marin Lemierre had given the stage a tragedy of that name. Grimm complained of its boredom, which went beyond that of the play by Prosper Jolyot de Crebillon performed in 1705. Grimm’s criticism bore, among other things, upon the tedium imposed by the traditional form of the tragedy, in which one has to put up with too many raisonneurs. In the adaptation by Crebillon, who invented the name of Idamante for the son, the action was complicated by a rivalry between father and son, both in love with the same Erixene. For the Cretan story of Idomeneus to become a tragedy or an opera, it was indeed necessary to add feminine voices to it. In 1712, Antoine Danchet composed for Campra a poem consisting of a prologue and five acts, overloaded with mythological display; in it the captive Ilione (who prefigures Ilia) was once again courted by the father and the son. Danchet’s innovation was to bring Electra into the story. Giambattista Varesco, in agreement with Mozart, would keep this character. In Idomeneus’ recitatives, Varesco even keeps the expression of a penchant for Ilia on the king’s part, together with a reproach to Idamante, who is in too great a hurry to release the captive girl. The false departure of Idamante and Electra for Argolis is also a plan intended to appease Idomeneus’ jealousy. But this theme is barely touched on in the opera. To complete the palette of affetti, there was a need to add a role in which the register of offense and the desire for revenge can be inscribed, there was a need for transports of fury, and it became inevitable to attribute them to a supplementary character. It was thus indispensable to have a wounded Electra, who, like Eriphile in Racine’s Iphigeneia, like Orestes in Andromache, was left deprived of love, given over to extreme jealousy, and appealing to the infernal powers.
Grimm’s judgment of the various Idomeneuses is precise and just, and everything leads us to believe that he might have reminded Mozart of it during their Parisian talks of 1778:
This subject is essentially lacking, and there is not enough stuff in it to furnish a five-act tragedy, in the form that we have given it. Our plays are too full of oratory, and the subject of Idomeneus does not admit of that: here everything must be passion and movement. The subject of Jephthah, which is essentially the same, has the advantage over that of Idomeneus of presenting a devoted daughter as victim, which makes the essence more touching.14
Indeed, we might add, the consequences of the imprudent vow, as Mozart was able to develop them, stirred up enough “passion and movement,” making it inadvisable to add a too– explicit Oedipal conflict between the father and the son.15
Myths of Return and Myths of Departure
The comparison of Jephthah and Idomeneus had already occupied the erudite of the seventeenth century. Fenelon obviously made use of the story from the Book of Judges (11: 29-40). It is not impossible that he knew the beautiful Jephthah of Carissimi (1650). As for Grimm, he was undoubtedly not ignorant of Monteclair’s Jephthah (1732), which Jean-Jacques Rousseau admired at the time of their friendship,16 and he might at least have heard mention of the existence of the superb opera– oratorio by Handel (1751).
Other resemblances have been pointed out. If the sacrificial subject of Jephthah and Idomeneus belongs to a category of myths that could be considered myths of return, there are others, symmetrical to them, that are myths of departure. Passage in one direction or the other depends on the favor of a divinity. That is the motif of Iphigeneia in Aulis. Anyone who has read Euripides and Racine knows the story that Gluck brought to the opera in 1774, with a libretto by Du Roullet. The angered Diana denies the Greeks favorable winds for their expedition against Troy; the seer Calchas informs Agamemnon that the goddess demands the sacrifice of his daughter. A bloody ceremony is prepared. Its performance had been evoked in the sublime first chorus of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. In the softened (Freud would say “repressed”) versions, Iphigeneia had been saved by the sacrifice of a substitute victim, either a doe (in Euripides), or a jealous rival, issued from the same blood and bearing the same name, who kills herself in a moment of fury (in Racine). Du Roullet and Gluck go further: the divinity arbitrarily revokes her wrath, to preserve the alliances and the concord among the Greeks. Mozart, of course, knew and admired Gluck’s Iphigeneia, and we discern more than one resemblance between the musical texture of this opera and Idomeneo.
In the myths of departure as in the myths of return, at a very fundamental level of belief, the warrior who crosses a fateful threshold-a shore, a frontier, a bridge-is obliged to pay the price of passage. He who gives nothing gets nothing. Thus a debt is established, which the divinity will not fail to claim. He who has given a vow cannot be released from his engagement, for great oaths are indissoluble bonds. The gods of Olympus know this sort of binding oath between them, which calls the infernal rivers to witness. When they have to do with mortals, they send devastation through plagues or monsters to the territory of the forsworn debtors.
In the case of Idomeneus and Jephthah, the cruel vow makes chance intervene to designate the victim promised to the divinity.17 To be sure, we must note the differences between their two vows. Jephthah condemned one of his own people in advance (the victim will be the first one “who comes forth from the doors of his house”), while Idomeneus, more vaguely, vows to sacrifice “the first head” he meets on the Cretan shore. He gives a wider scope to hazard. It could be some unknown person, or even an animal. Yet everything happens as if the divinity had imposed the heaviest price. For victory, for the success of the voyage, for crossing the terrible “glaucous sea,” the warrior hero is forced to give his most precious possession. His ex-voto will be a part of himself: his child.
“Love Has Conquered”
Loving devotion will bring about the denouement.18 The logic of sacrifice thus resembles the logic of dreams, in which one figure stands in for another. This is a device that classical tragedy often played upon, but the commonplace of “dying in place of another” is nonetheless charged with meaning. This motif has its expression in painting: it is the myth of Coresus and Callirhoe in the great canvas Fragonard painted for his reception into the Academy, on which Diderot produced a copious commentary. He or she who consents to die in the place of the originally designated victim asks for nothing else than to be able voluntarily to redeem a loved one. With no other conditions. Idomeneus’ fatal vow was a bargain: it was a give-and-take. The voluntary sacrifice of Ilia is no longer that, or at least has profoundly modified the terms of the exchange. The voluntary victim wants only to be given death, and asks for nothing in return except the survival of the one condemned to death. The renunciation is total: the substitute victim can never possess what she obtains. It is the supreme test, which marks the gift with the seal of truth, since all personal interest is abolished. The divinity is free to accept the death of this replacement. Or, on the contrary, to pardon, because the love that renounces all goes beyond any negotiation. It is then the divinity who changes: the terrifying god gives way to compassion, renounces his wrath. Ilia can then be the redeemer of the condemned son.
To be sure, this was a religious motif which, in the eighteenth century, was secularized to the point of banality. One wearied of the conventional trappings and predictable rhetoric in which the theater and opera of the eighteenth century dressed up the gods and heroes of mythology. Drudging poets and hurried musicians made use of this material to satisfy appeals for a ceaseless “remake.” But the motif of sacrifice can recover its strength. For this mythology gave access to the unavowable, to the most disturbing dreams, and it took only a renewal of musical language for the fire to rekindle. If Varesco’s poem was in no way innovative, it did at least, to use Grimm’s expression quoted above, “name the subject and create the situation”; it “supplied the masses,” and the rest belonged to “the composer’s genius.” Mozart had obtained by force the words that suited him; his music reanimated the mystery of the mythic theme with a prodigious power of invention. It is enough to recall the richness of the orchestration, the extraordinary accompaniments of the recitatives, the sublime quartetto in act three, in which all sufferings are knitted together. The great enigmatic dream of the child destined for sacrifice-Isaac, Iphigeneia-was given new life here. A literary exegesis of the libretto-despite its merits– will not cast light on the reasons for our emotion. But we ought nonetheless to give it one last look.
The final scene of Idomeneo takes place under the statue of Neptune, which comes to life and speaks at the moment when the axe is raised over Idamante.19 In Mozart, in the long version of the divine intervention, the oracle, to the accompaniment of the brasses, pronounces a more explicit judgment, absolving the father in Idomeneus but punishing the king. As king, Idomeneus is forsworn and must lose his royalty. As father, he is forgiven: Idamante will live and succeed him. The short version, which Mozart preferred, says all this more soberly. The transmission of power is of very great importance here. It is as if we were present at the transition from one age of the world to another. This opera, which is religious in essence, bears the message of the Aufklarung, in that it makes us present at the passing from a time of warriors to a time of liberating and benevolent heroes.20 Idomeneus’ final aria, Torna in me la pace, expresses joy reconquered after the abdication of the function of command: the good fortune being that all lives are spared, it is a relief to lay down the sword and the royal burden. “The old tree flourishes anew.” Though the words do not say it explicitly, we are tempted to believe, at the time of the wedding, that the final feast-in the framework of the opera’s fiction-celebrates the disappearance of the monarch’s charismatic authority, while a harmonious anarchy begins-a fraternal concord. The new prince will not rule by making his own will prevail, but by submitting himself to the higher law of love.
And, along with love, it is also liberty that triumphs. Idamante’s perfect filial love has not kept him from being above all a liberator. That he is a liberator, we learn from Ilia’s recitative as the curtain first rises. While the ship that brought back the Trojan captives was sinking, it was he who saved the noble daughter of Priam. And from his first appearance onstage, he has no other desire than to make a wife of the enemy princess who was war booty for Idomeneus. At the end of the first act, the other Trojan prisoners are collectively restored to liberty: this is the occasion for a very beautiful chorus of rejoicing. Then come the decisive tests, which resemble those that will be in store for Tamino: confronting the sadness and silence of the father, obeying the order of exile, confronting the monster (before whom the more human Tamino flees), offering his life. These similarities allow for more subtle comparisons. Mozart, in each of his operatic compositions, had to accept the vocal resources put at his disposal. Thus he modified the accent of love by conferring more virtuosity on Idamante (sung in 1781 by an unsatisfying castrato, and today by a mezzo-soprano), and infinitely more tenderness on Tamino. The voices of the oracle and the high priest of Neptune, in the statement of sovereign authority, already have the register of Sarastro’s. But these sacerdotal voices state orders; they do not discourse the way Sarastro does.
Mozart preferred, for the sake of dramatic effectiveness, to shorten the oracle’s sentence. There are three known versions of it. Two of them begin with the essential words: Ha vinto amore … “Love has conquered.” These words had already been heard in many an opera (notably in a beautiful chorus from Rameau’s Pygmalion). But here the magic is complete: the decisive victory belongs to Ilia, who offers herself as a substitute victim. The vow of loving devotion is stronger than the vow of human sacrifice. We are persuaded, by the music itself, of the profound truth of this love. It is the most beautiful music there is: tormented happiness, suffering become joy. Mozart has constructed the role and the arias of Ilia-the captive, the lover-in such a way as to make her love appear as the principal antagonist to the dark Neptunian power. This is perhaps the principal antagonism of the entire opera. For it ought to be emphasized that there is no real conflict among the various characters of Idomeneo. They do not struggle with each other. Their natures are most certainly different, but no intrigue sets them in opposition. In this opera, the confrontation of the great divine Adversary is more important than the conflicts among individuals. The emotions of the characters do not come from their psychological relations, but from a cosmic hostility. The whole action, developing the consequences of the vow made to Neptune, unfolds under the whims of elemental power. In The Abduction from the Seraglio, in The Magic Flute, the prisoners will be guarded by jailers whose vigilance must be outwitted. Liberation is thus brought about by means of a ruse or a magic that outwits the guardians’ precautions. (We think also of Fidelio, which is the most famous example of the “opera of liberation.”) Things go quite otherwise in Idomeneo. Ilia, liberated and liberator, castaway and voluntary victim, had first been a captive, to be sure, but she is now no longer in the power of a guardian. The various voices-from that of the bold hero to the collective voices of the choruses-respond from the depths of being to a faceless necessity, which manifests itself in the orchestra starting from the overture. The choruses are great intermediaries between the gods, nature, and the individual figures. The music, permeated by so many stormy breaths, finds itself that much more free to communicate an emotion that goes beyond all individual psychology. We must accept the various fictive roles, while seeing them as no more than instruments for a message that comes from farther away. As Mozart tells it, the fable speaks for the strength of love and the return to life on the very point of death.[Translated from the French by Richard Pevear]
1 This study is a modified version of a text intended for the program of the performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo in the production by Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann at the operas of Baden-Baden and Salzburg in June and August 2000. Certain points in this study have benefitted from the valuable comments of Mr. Wolfgang Rehm.
2 An exhaustive overview of the greatest interest is offered by Eduardo Federico in a study entitled Dall’Ida al Salento. L’itinerario mitico di Idomeneo cretese, Rome, Atti della Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, Memorie, Serie IX, Volume XI, Fascicolo 2, pp. 255-418.
3 Fenelon, Dialogues sur l’eloquence, II, in (Euvres completes, 10 vol., Paris, Leroux, 1851-1852, vol. VI, p. 589.
4 I quote from the exemplary edition established by Jacques Le Brun of the (Euvres of Fenelon, 2 vols., Paris, Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1997, vol. 2, pp. 60-61. Very precise notes point out the biblical and Virgilian borrowings in this passage.
5 Les Aventures de Telemaque, book 8, Pleiade, p. 119.
6 The women’s part is not forgotten here. But it is subordinate. They are told to stay in their “place.” Which the Queen of Night does not do. A psychological analysis of the Telemaque, inspired by psychoanalysis, is presented by Henk Hillenaar, Le secret de Tel,que, Paris, PUF, 1994, particularly pp. 81-90.
7 Fenelon, Examen de conscience sur les devoirs de la royaute, (sec)31. See (Euvres, Pleiade, II, p. 994. In 1942, this text and others of the same inspiration led to the banning in Vichy France of an anthology of Fenelon published in Switzerland through the efforts of Marcel Raymond.
8 Letter of Leopold Mozart to Lorenz Hagenauer, 16 May 1766. See Mozart, Briefe and Aufzeichnungen, ed. by Wilhelm Bauer and Otto Erich Deutsch, 7 vols., Barenreiter, KasselBasel-London-New York, 1962, 1, p. 220: “Habe … in Cambray das Grabmal des grossen Fenelons, and seine marmorne Brustbild-Skule betrachtet, der sick durch semen Telemach, durch das Buch von der Erziehung der Tochter, durch seine Gesprache der Todten, seine Fabeln and andere geistliche and weltliche Schriften unsterblich gemacht hat.”
9 “Right now I’m reading the Telemachus, I’m already in the second part” [“Izt lese ich lust den Telemach, ich bin schon in zweyten thed’]. Briefe, I, p. 388. It is supposed that Mozart was reading an Italian translation.
10 This was a patronage on which Mozart’s father placed too great hopes. In December 1763, Grimm remarked in his Correspondence litt&aire on Mozart’s first stay in Paris. He speaks of him again in a second passage on 15 July 1766 (“a marvellous child”). Starting from 1773, the Correspondance litt&aire will no longer be edited by Melchior Grimm, but by Jacques-Henri Meister. In 1778, we find not the least mention of Mozart staying in Paris. During the summer, all minds were occupied by the deaths of Voltaire and Rousseau. Besides, Grimm was a cold and calculating man; he was busy with the sale of Voltaire’s library to the Russian empress Catherine the Great. He neither saw nor did anything for Wolfgang’s future in Paris. See his letter to Leopold Mozart of 27 July 1778, in which, to describe the fate of musicians who run around giving lessons, he uses terms similar to those of the Neveu de Rameau: “Here, to make your way, you have to be wily, enterprising, audacious. For his own good fortune, I could wish he had half as much talent and twice as much social sense” (Briefe, II, p. 442).
11 Letter of 3 July 1778, in Briefe, II, p. 389: “Man finder sehr schwehr ein gates Poi;lne.” It is in this letter that Wolfgang announces to his father the illness-soon to prove fatal-of his mother.
12 Correspondance litteraire, ed. by M. Tourneux, 16 vols. (Paris, Garnier, 1877-82), V, p. 416 (1 December 1763).
13 “Bey einer opera muss schlechterdings die Poesie der Musik gehorsame Tochter seyn.” Letter of 13 October 1781, in Briefe, III, p. 167.
14 Correspondance litteraire, V, pp. 458-62 (1 March 1764).
15 In Varesco, act II, scene 2, in which Idomeneus offers Ilia his treasure after deciding to send his son away, this conflict is only sketched out. On Grimm and Mozart, see Martin Fontius, “Mozart chez Grimm et Madame d’Epinay,” Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopedie, No. 9, Oct. 1990, pp. 95-108; and Daniel Heartz, Mozart’s Operas (Berkeley, 1989).
16 In a Lettre sur l’opera, which probably dates to 1745, and which was published only in the nineteenth century, Rousseau evokes the audience’s transports “at the famous chorus of Jephthah” ((Euvres completes, Paris, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1995, V, p. 257). The reference is to a passage for two choruses that quickly became famous, of which Rousseau speaks again in his Dictionnaire de la musique (the article “Choeur”); he remembered having bad difficulty sight-reading it in a salon at Chambery (Confessions, book V).
17 This is the motif catalogued under the formula “First thing you meet” in Stith Thompson, A Motiv-Index of Folk Literature, 6 vols. (Bloomington and London, 1966).
18 I use the word “devotion” in the strongest sense. But I renounce any gloss here.
is From the first act on, the god’s body plays an episodic role in the pantomime, differentiated from the Voice and the High Priest who make known his will.
20 This was also Fenelon’s lesson, but it concerned only Idomeneus. He did not give up his power; he renounced the proud satisfactions of glory; he adopted new principles, more equitable, more respectful of the good of the people. In other words, he converted.
JEAN STAROBINSKI’s essay in this issue will appear in his forthcomig book, Les enchanteresses a l’opera, in the series La Librairie du
XXIeme siecle, published in Paris by Editions du Seuil.
Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2002
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