Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Promise of Idomeneo

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Promise of Idomeneo

Article excerpt

Fenelon's Story

Neptune's anger rules over the whole opera of Idomeneo, to be appeased only in the moment when the cruel sacrifice he demands is about to be accomplished.1 The motif of the storm is present from the overture (in D major). For the first production in Munich, in 1781, the stage designer Lorenz Quaglio undoubtedly took great pleasure in constructing the set. The spectators must have made out an ideal palace and a picturesque port skirted by foaming waves, a temple of Neptune with trompel'oeil decorations which brought together dolphins, tridents, and horses with flowing manes. These decorative elements might have served for many previous operas. A whole memory of storms in literature and music might have awakened when Mozart made the superb appeals of the two choruses-vicino and lontano-ring out in a pathetic entreaty: Pieta, Numi, pieta! (I, 5).

The most literate of the spectators had perhaps already encountered Idomeneus in the passages of the Iliad that recount his warlike exploits and had glimpsed his name in the Aeneid. Above all, for most of them, this name had become inseparable from Fenelon's Adventures of Telemachus (1699), which was among the favorite reading of all Europe in the eighteenth century. This book written for the education of a prince, and which lectures to kings, had conveyed a whole social and political morality, which still remained alive among the same men who gave the first impulse to the French Revolution. Rousseau had served as relay. The education of his Emile is completed by a journey during which the institutions of various nations are to be studied. His tutor inculcates principles into him which sum up the essentials of the Social Contract. But it is with "a Telemachus in hand" that teacher and pupil travel. While the normative principles of the contract establish a "scale of measurement" for judging various existing societies, Fenelon's story presents models and counter-- models of monarchs. The princes and governments of the real world will be compared with them: "We seek happy Salento and the good Idomeneus made wise by dint of his misfortunes." Fenelon had constructed his imaginary figures of princes from contemporary experiences. Now sixty years later Rousseau still advises thinking of these figures in order to interpret the political reality of the moment.

In Fenelon the man whom Rousseau calls "the good Idomeneus" does not merit this reassuring qualifier from the start. He is first of all an infanticide king, the murderer of his own son; he becomes, in a second career, a bold sovereign, exaggeratedly attracted to the glory of arms and the taste for magnificence, before growing wise thanks to Mentor's lessons. We must clearly distinguish, on the one hand, the Cretan destiny of Idomeneus, drawn according to ancient sources, and, on the other hand, his role, this time invented by Fenelon, as head of a nascent State, the kingdom of Salento on the coast of Calabria. This is the moment when the political novel takes over from the myth. Contrary to Louis XIV, whom he resembles in many traits of character, Idomeneus renounces conquest and is able to make peace with his neighbors. The prosperous fields and laborious capital are schools of virtue, where law rules over the monarch himself. Everything here is brought down to a "noble and frugal simplicity," and, in the harmony of a strictly hierarchical society, everything combines in a common utility.

The ancient legend was transmitted in scattered texts, or in glosses (Servius), which the mythographers of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century collected.2 There is no complete story or play that develops the subject before Fenelon. The fifth book of the Telemachus is thus the first coherent literary treatment of the return hindered by Neptune, the son's murder, and the king's exile.

Fenelon's text, full of borrowings from the ancients, is beautiful in its elocution and its rhythm. You think you are hearing the "passionate declamation"3 that the archbishop of Cambrai thought he heard again in the music of his time. …

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