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During his trips to Mannheim and Paris in 1777/78, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart picked up a great many ideas which he was eager to develop into works of his own. In 1780 the court at Munich commissioned him to write a major opera for the 1781 carnival. Idomeneo, then, is a dramaturgical and musical experiment: in it, Mozart combined forms of French and Italian opera. He told the haunting tale of human sacrifice with as much drama and variety as he could, using a chorus and dance sequences.

The Trojan princess Ilia lives in captivity at the court of the king on Crete. There she has fallen in love with Prince Idamante, who returns her love. But Electra, who fled to Crete after her brother Orestes murdered their mother Clytemnestra, also loves Idamante. In the meantime, Idomeneo, the Kingof Crete and Idamante’s father, is caught in a terrible storm while sailing home from the Trojan War. The only way he can placate Poseidon, the god of the sea, is by promising to sacrifice the first person he meets when he reaches home. The first person he sees is his son Idamante. Idomeneo hopes to avoid having to make this sacrifice by sending Idamante away with Electra. But just as they are about to board their ship a monstrous serpent appears that threatens Crete. Idomeneo is now forced to confess to the angry Cretans that his son Idamante is the sacrifice demanded by Poseidon. It is because he has not made it that the serpent now lurks in the harbour. Idamante kills it and then prepares to sacrifice himself. But a voice is heard from underground, announcing that Idomeneo should abdicate and that Idamante should be crowned king and marry Ilia. Idomeneo, the two lovers and the people are happy. Only Electra is left with nothing, and is furious.

In Munich, Mozart had one of the best orchestras of the day at his disposal, and it is for this reason that the instrumental colours play a more important role than in all his other operas. Using only the sound of the orchestra, Mozart subtly portrays the emotional turmoil of the characters as they are faced with the question of how much their own lives and how much the lives of others are worth.