Who is Idomeneo and why are the gods pursuing and punishing him? This is the first question that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart asks at the start of his opera. Without this question, it is impossible to understand why Idomeneo, King of Crete and one of the greatest Greek military men in the Trojan War, was prepared to sacrifice his own son to save himself.
The second question is connected to peculiarities of the era where the action unfolds. Can Idomeneo´s story be told with the same heat as in Mozart´s time? To what degree do the behaviour and psychological reactions of the opera´s characters interweave with the life experience of audiences today?
As may be imagined, there are many such overlappings. The ten-year battle for Troy was unusually bloody and cruel, it was close to today´s "total wars" and Idomeneo was (like all other military leaders) one of those to commit was crimes.
What happened before
The Trojan War has ended. On his return from Troy, where he was one of the most influential Greek generals, Idomeneo, King of Crete, is caught in a heavy storm. In his despair he promises Neptune, the God of the Sea, to sacrifice the life of the first human being he happens to meet if he returns safely to his homeland.
In the midst of the same storm Ilia, daughter of King Priam of Troy, is rescued by Prince Idamante, the son of Idomeneo. She immediately falls in love, but does not dare to confess her feelings to him. Idamante releases the Trojan prisoners. Electra, daughter of King Agamemnon and sister of Orestes, who has fled from Argos to Crete, also loves Idamante. She disrupts the reconciliation scene, and when Arbace, the prince's tutor, brings the news that Idomeneo has drowned in a dreadful storm, her feelings of revenge and jealousy burst out as she realises that her plan to marry Idamante is bound to fail. Idamante despairingly rushes to the beach to search for his father.
Meanwhile Idomeneo's ship has been smashed to pieces, and he himself has been driven ashore. The first person he encounters is his own son Idamante. He curses the gods, rejects his son and forbids him ever to see him again. Idamante is left behind in despair.
Arbace and Idomeneo look for a way out of the situation: Idomeneo decides to send his son and Electra to Argos. Ilia appears before the king, who obviously wants to marry her. Ilia leaves him no doubt that she would accept him only as a father. After she has left, Idomeneo in a fit of fury becomes aware of his inner storm, which is even more violent than the real storm from which he has escaped.
The only person content with the new developments is Electra. She is allowed to depart with the prince she loves and, at the same time, can get rid of her rival Ilia. Idamante only reluctantly obeys his father's order. However, when he and Electra approach the ship which is to take them to Argos, another thunderstorm arises and a terrible monster appears out of the sea. Idomeneo has provoked Neptune. He confesses his guilt, but refuses to carry out the sacrifice of an innocent victim. The storm continues and everybody runs away.
Ilia reveals her true feelings to the sleeping prince. When he awakes and announces his plan to commit suicide by fighting the monster, she confesses her love to him. The love scene is unexpectedly interrupted by Electra and Idomeneo, who demand that the departure to Argos should finally take place. The king again refuses to reveal the reasons for driving away his son. The emotions of all four protagonists collide in a quartet. Idamante leaves in despair, prepared to fight the monster.