Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Libretto by Giambattista Varesco from a French text by Antoine Danchet
The action takes place on the island of Crete, at the end of the Trojan War. The Greek forces in the war comprised a large coalition of different Greek states, including Argos and Crete.
Electra is the daughter of Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek co-forces. When Agamemnon arrived back home in Greece after the war he was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra was then killed by her son, Orestes. Electra bore witness to these events and has just fled to Crete.
Ilia, a Trojan princess, escaped by boat from Troy and the Greek forces at the end of the war, and when her ship was caught in a storm off the coast of Crete she was captured by the Cretan prince, Idamante,.
Idomeneo, the king, is now on his way back from Troy with the Cretan fleet.
Ilia is torn between her feelings of loyalty to her late father, her homeland, and its people, and her undeclared love for Idamante, Idomeneo’s son. Her distress is compounded by the presence on the island of the Greek princess Electra, who also loves Idamante and who Ilia wrongly believes is loved by him.
Idamante calls for the Trojan prisoners to be assembled and announces that, despite the fierce storm, his father’s ships have been sighted close to shore and there is hope that the king has survived. Idamante tells Ilia that he loves her; she rebuffs his declaration, reminding him of the enmity between their respective parents. He believes, however, that her demeanour reveals her true feelings for him and he longs for a time when she can openly declare her love. The Trojan prisoners are released, and Trojans and Cretans alike give thanks that the war is over.
Electra’s protests at the Trojans’ release are dismissed by Idamante. Arbace enters with news of Idomeneo’s apparent death in the shipwreck, and Idamante hurries to the shore. Ilia is torn between compassion and guilt. Electra gives vent to her jealousy of Ilia and her anger at being scorned by Idamante: with the king dead, no one will be able to prevent the union of Idamante and Ilia. She swears vengeance on her hated rival.
Idomeneo has been shipwrecked on the shore of Crete. After dismissing his loyal friend, he reveals his terror of the vow he has made to Poseidon: in return for his safe delivery, he has promised to sacrifice to the sea-god the first person to approach him on land. He sees a man coming towards him: it is Idamante. At first, neither father nor son recognize each other, but when their identities become clear, Idomeneo rebuffs his son and forbids him to follow him. Idamante cannot comprehend his father’s reaction.
The people of Crete celebrate Idomeneo’s return.
Interval of 20 minutes
Idomeneo tells Arbace about his vow to Poseidon and how he must sacrifice Idamante to the sea-god. They decide to send Idamante away and find another way of appeasing Poseidon. Ilia overhears them discussing Idamante’s departure and tells the prince that he must obey his father’s wishes, marry Electra, and forget her. Idamante declares to Ilia that he can love no one but her. Ilia thanks Idomeneo for allowing her to stay in Crete. The king suspects that Ilia and Idamante must be in love, and fears that his son acted impulsively in granting Ilia her freedom: Poseidon will take his revenge on all three of them. Idomeneo compares his inner turmoil with the physical storm from which he recently escaped. Electra discovers that she is to leave Crete with Idamante and describes how happy she is to be leaving with him.
After Idomeneo, Idamante and Electra have said their goodbyes, a storm suddenly erupts making the departure of the boat impossible. The Cretans wonder who among them could have offended Poseidon and caused the deity to send the storm. Idomeneo privately talks to Arbace about the situation and suggests that that he alone should be punished. The storm worsens and all flee the port in terror.
Interval of 20 minutes
Unaware of events at the port, Ilia admits to herself the cost of suppressing her feelings for Idamante. Unexpectedly, Idamante enters to say his last farewell. Ilia abandons all pretence and declares her love.
Idomeneo and Electra enter. Idamante begs his father to explain why he continues to shun him: the king’s answer is to reiterate Idamante’s banishment from Crete. Idamante agrees to abide by his father’s wishes; Ilia declares that Idamante’s fate will be hers; Idomeneo complains at the actions of Poseidon; and Electra expresses her desire for vengeance. Idamante then leaves.
Arbace reports that a crowd, led by the High Priest of Poseidon, are demanding to meet Idomeneo. Alone, Arbace laments the terrible situation in which Crete now finds itself.
The High Priest invites Idomeneo to survey the scene of devastation that has befallen the kingdom. He urges the king to make the required sacrifice. All are shocked when Idomeneo reveals that it is Idamante who is to be the sacrificial victim.
Idomeneo arrives at the beach and he and the priests beg for the sea-god’s mercy. Their prayers are interrupted by distant shouts of joy, heralding Idamante’s imminent arrival. Idamante enters, now ready to offer his own life as a ritual sacrifice. Idomeneo asks for his son’s forgiveness before they take one final embrace. Just as Idomeneo has steeled himself to strike Idamante, Ilia and Electra rush in and stop him, and Ilia offers herself as the sacrifice in place of Idamante.
The Voice of Poseidon is heard coming from the sea. The god decrees that Idomeneo is forgiven, though having reneged on his vow, he must abdicate in favour of Idamante and Ilia. All are relieved by this command except Electra, who is consumed with fury.
Idomeneo accedes to Poseidon’s will and invites the Cretans to look forward to a happy and peaceful future under the leadership of Idamante and Ilia.
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