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FACTS: Mozart’s story of Idomeneo draws on sources several times removed from the Greek legends and writings of Homer. Hence, Ilia does not appear in the original myth, which itself has several variations. (See the article on Idomeneo for more details.)
In Mozart’s opera, Ilia is the daughter of King Priam of Troy. When Troy fell, she and other Trojans were captured and taken to Crete. She has her own apartments and is treated with respect by the Cretans.
(If Ilia was the daughter of King Priam, then she would have been sister to the heroes Paris and Hector, and have two sister Polyxena, who was sacrificed by the Greeks at Achilles’ funeral, and Cassandra, the prophetess doomed to tell the truth and never be believed.)
(Where stage directions are quoted, they appear in ‘italics’.)
CHARACTER EVOLUTION: Ilia is alone in her apartments bemoaning her fate, a “Wretched survivor of a fearful storm, left without father and brothers.” She is afraid about her future and that of her fellow prisoners: “For what cruel fate have the gods preserved us?” She hopes that Idomeneo has perished and is perhaps now “Food for hungry fish”. However, she struggles with her love for Idamante, who “Snatched me from he waves”; she realises that “I should revenge myself on he who saved my life.” As a Trojan she knows she is “Guilty of abandoning my kin” but cannot bring herself to “Hate his face.” (Padre, germani, addio)
She is bitter about the Trojans’ lot in front of Idamante too: “Greece is protected by Minerva whilst the full fury of the gods descends on the Trojans.” However, she is completely taken aback when Idamante frees all the Trojan prisoners – and admits how she has conquered his heart. She is still conscious of the consequences and keeps her distance: “Remember who your father is – and who mine was.” Idamante is less cautious, saying how “Asia and Greece are reunited by a princess more gentle and beautiful than Helen.” (Perhaps he sees a union as a good political move too? She doesn’t – yet.) On the news of Idomeneo’s supposed drowning, however, she recognises: “My heart mist be moved by the passing of such a great hero.”
When she meets Idomeneo, she sees in him a new father figure – or is it father-in-law? “You are now a father to me, and Crete is a blessed place to stay in.” She says, “Joy and contentment compensate me for my loss.” This is a much more contrite Ilia that the girl from Act One. (Se il padre perdei)
Ilia’s freedoms do not extend beyond the palace, so she knows nothing of the events at the harbour as she salutes the “Amorous breezes” in the garden. She finds it hard to contain her love for Idamante: “How it pains my poor heart to remain silent and aloof, when I am near the man who won it!” She hopes the breezes will tell him “How I adore him.” (Zeffiretti lusinghieri)
As Idamante appears, she sympathizes with his pain over his father’s reactions, but is mindful of both their royal upbringing: “Remember, you are the only hope of a mighty empire.” As he confesses his love, she returns to admission: “Love and fear wrestle in my breast.” She still sees loving his as a betrayal: “My country, my family’s blood still warm, how they reproach me for my treacherous love!” In the Duet (S’io non amoro a questi accenti) she finally gives in to her feelings:” I will be true to you … will you be my husband?”
When the two lovers are discovered, Ilia may know her heart, but she is a poor judge of character as far as Elettra is concerned.
Ilia: Compassionate princess, please console me!
Elettra: I comfort you? How? (aside) She continues to insult me without shame!
Ilia resolves that she will follow Idamante: “And where you die, there I will die too.” However, as political events overtake her, she sees a new danger looming: “Are the people in revolt?” She has reason to be concerned; a change of rulers could signal a drastic change in her own fortunes.
Rushing into the temple, Ilia runs to ‘restrain Idomeneo’, a brave act against the king - and her captor. She offers herself instead of Idamante, since “A willing victim always pleases the gods more.” She ‘runs to the altar’ and despite Idamante holding her back physically, she is determined: “I want to cross that last river alone. Now, holy priest.” Only the divine intervention of Neptune himself, pronouncing that Idomeneo should renounce the throne and Idamante and Ilia should marry and rule, saves the day. She cannot quite believe this happy ending herself: “Idamante, did you hear?”
SINGER’S VIEW: “Ilia in Idomeneo … has a great deal of moral sense and fibre. She also has a huge tenderness, a huge willingness to give and to sacrifice herself. She is a true blue female in the best sense of the word: the tender, nurturing sense that can make such women the salt of the earth. She is the Mother Teresa of operatic characters because she gives without wanting anything back. It's all in one direction, it's all give. And that is something very, very special.
‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’ is full of long, long phrases with nowhere to breathe, and you have to be able to take this on board. I hope that the more I sing it, the easier it will become. But it's definitely one of those roles that can easily be vocally underestimated. They appear easy, because they're by Mozart, but in fact they're very, very difficult. Mozart is the most difficult composer … in Mozart, as with all classical composers, …you are totally exposed.”
interviewed in “Diva; the Next Generation” by Helena Matheopoulos.
© 2005 Kirsty Young
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