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Mozart's 'Idomeneo,' Busting Opera's Boundaries

Like all great composers, Mozart wrote music that amazes us in ways that are almost impossible to describe--with its remarkable depth, its surprising complexity and its sheer beauty.

In fact, Mozart's seemingly effortless brilliance can make us forget that he was also one of music's greatest innovators, especially when it comes to opera.

Mozart's late operas, including Don Giovanni, combined intense drama, breezy comedy and profound insights, in a way that had never been heard before, using musical forms and techniques that were unprecedented.

But strangely, it may be an earlier, more traditional drama that first revealed Mozart's unique gift for taking the familiar, and making it extraordinary.

Late in 1780, Mozart was hard at work on a brand new opera that could easily have gone out of style before it was even finished. Idomeneo was conceived as an opera seria, a highly-stylized musical recipe that had been the "in thing" with European aristocrats for decades. And, by the time the Elector of Bavaria asked Mozart for Idomeneo, the fashion was clearly fading.

But Mozart was 24 years old, at the top of his game, and undaunted by current trends. If the elector wanted an opera seria, Mozart would write one. Using a traditional libretto based on classical myth, Mozart produced a score that surpassed the very genre it was rooted in.

In Idomeneo, the set-piece arias, dry recitatives and familiar, mythical characters are all there. But so are deeply emotional ensembles, lyrical and inventive arias, and music and characters so fresh, that in this new example of an old style, the familiar conventions burst wide open.

The opera was first heard in Munich, in 1781. That premiere was a success, but the opera had only one other performance in Mozart's lifetime, and that was in a concert version, in Vienna, in 1786. After that, Idomeneo was caught in a kind of time-warp: Its formal, 18th-century style didn't appeal to the burgeoning Romantic movement of the 19th century. When it was performed, it was in souped-up arrangements, such as the one by Richard Strauss. It wasn't until 1951 that it was again staged in its authentic form, in Glyndebourne, England. But since then, it has been pretty firmly planted in the standard repertoire.

This week, World of Opera host Lisa Simeone, presents Mozart's trendsetting, and trend-breaking Idomeneo, in a production from the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, featuring conductor Kent Nagano, and tenor John Mark Ainsley in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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