Mozart - Chaconne from Idomeneo, rè di Creta

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791) – Though only 24 in 1780, Mozart already had several operas to his credit. His catalogue to that point was modest in terms of critical success, but he was beginning to garner the interest of some important people. One such personage was Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria, who commissioned an opera seria from Mozart for the 1781 Carnival season in Munich. The result was a turning point in Mozart’s career.  

THE MUSIC – The opera seria form was on the wane by the 1780s and had changed significantly since its formative days in the 1720s. As different as it may have looked from the rigid structural designs of its heyday, opera seria still had its share of expectations when Mozart composed Idomeneo for the Bavarian festival. Among them was the obligatory incorporation of a French-style ballet, itself a pre-defined set of dance forms that included the chaconne. A chaconne typically employs a repeating melodic bass line above which a series of thematic variations unfolds but Mozart, in keeping with his own unconventional bent, crafted more of a grand rondo instead. It wasn’t the only example of “rule-breaking” by Mozart in the ballet sections or even the larger opera itself. He clearly accepted the framework of traditional opera seria in only the most cursory way and with his disobediences pushed the form forward by the sheer force of his genius. The libretto of Idomeneo recounts the story of the Cretan King’s return from the Trojan Wars. He makes a promise of sacrifice to Neptune during a brutal storm and only later realizes that this deal has put his son at grave risk. Events lead to a monster-slaying, a compromise and an abdication. All ends well and the chorus sings triumphantly for the new royal couple. The ballet grows naturally from this dignified mood and Mozart’s noble Chaconne echoes the relief of averted tragedy.                 

THE WORLD – Cornwallis surrendered to Washington in 1781, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War. Insurgent Peruvian leader Tupac Amaru II was captured and violently executed by the Spanish colonial authorities. Also in 1781, the planet Uranus was “discovered.”

THE CONNECTION – Mozart’s Chaconne from Idomeneo has never been performed on a Utah Symphony Masterworks concert, nor has the full opera been produced by Utah Opera.