We are a reading household (there’s a surprise) and an oft-quoted exclamation, when one of us, uninvited, reads an extract from the current book to the other is ‘Who are all these people?’ I think it’s from a Peter Nichols play but I could be wrong – we are also very poor on attribution.
So it is something I’ve been thinking whilst we’ve been rehearsing Mozart’s Idomeneo. Assiduous readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to plundering Homer myself, and Idomeneo is set in the aftermath of the Trojan war, so naturally I’m curious as to the source of the story.
This opera was first performed in 1781, and Mozart’s librettist Giambattista Varesco seems to have borrowed heavily from an earlier 1712 opera Idomenée by André Campra (I’m listening to it as I write) libretto by Antoine Danchet, who in turn borrowed from a stage play of the same name by Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon performed in 1707.
Idomeneo (Idomeneus) King of Crete (Grandson of Minos in case you are wondering) does appear in The Iliad occasionally, and comment is made on the vast size of his fleet (relevent to the plot!). He has a tricky journey home like so many of the Greek allies, and in order to be saved from drowning promises to sacrifice the first person he sees, who is, of course, his son – it wouldn’t be a Greek tragedy otherwise.
I’m not sure this is in The Iliad, but in all the other versions of the story I can trace he does kill his son (Idamante in this version) either as a sacrifice, or by accident, and is then banished either by the Cretan’s themselves as a murderer, or driven mad by Poseidon.
So where do the women come in? Neither Ilia not Electra appear in Crébillon’s play, and Ilia seems to be a completely 18th Century invention, she is not mentioned in the Iliad, and the only person of that name I can find is a daughter of Aeneas who would presumably not have been born at this stage in events (hark at me going on like it was real…) In this version she is one of Priam’s many children, shipwrecked from one Idomeneo’s many ships, along with the rest of the Trojan captives. As for Electra – daughter of possibly the unluckiest family in the history of time…
In case you don’t know, she was the daughter of Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus whose wife was Helen, married to Clytemnestra, sister of Helen – keep up!). He sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia (Electra’s sister) to get favourable winds to get to Troy in the first place. When he got home from the war, Clytemnestra killed him, and then Orestes, their son (Electra’s brother) killed Clytemnestra. (according to Sophocles and Euripides, since you ask) After that it gets murky as to what goes on with Electra, but various options are open including her becoming a kidnapper, or a quiet marriage to a cousin, but in none of them does she end up in Crete in a jealous fit of pique at Idamante’s adoration of ‘Trojan Slave-girl’ Ilia, as she does here, and in the Campra version. Hey ho, that’s Opera for you, as if there isn’t enough going on already, there has to be someone driven mad by jealousy!
There are several editions of the Mozart opera in any case, with varying inclusions and omissions so I shan’t give you clues as to the ultimate fate of poor Electra.
Come along and find out what happens in our version, under the direction of James Hurley, and how we manage the sea monster (did I not mention the monster??)… tickets here