Andre Campra was one of the leading figures on the French musical stage between Lully's death in 1687 and Rameau's operatic debut in 1733. He made a pioneering contribution to opera-ballet, and wrote several tragedies en musiques and a significant corpus of sacred music in his capacity as Maitre de musique at Notre-Dame in Paris. Campra's best-known tragedie en musique, and one of his most successful, was Tancrede, first performed in 1702 and revived at frequent intervals between then and 1764 when, following Rameau's death, the Academie Royale de Musique staged it in place of the latter's Les Boreades. The reasons behind this last minute change of plan have never been fully explained but it might well have been that the Academie Royale, preferring to be safe than sorry, decided to produce a piece which had proved popular over many years rather than one which was entirely new to the repertory.
Idomenee, like Tancrede, is a tragedie in five acts and a prologue. The librettist in both cases was Campra's frequent collaborator, Antoine Danchet. Idomenee was first staged on January 12th, 1712 and ran for 12 performances that month. Then it was dropped until 1731 when, in a reworked version, it was revived; this later version has been chosen by William Christie for his recording. As Antonia Banducci remarks in her introductory essay, much of the story will be familiar to readers acquainted with Mozart's Idomeneo. Mozart's librettist, Varesco in fact used Danchet's text as a prime source for his own, Danchet himself turning to Crebillon's play Idomenee which had been performed at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But whereas Varesco changed the ending to ensure the lieto fine Danchet remained faithful to Crebillon in preserving a tragic conclusion to the opera.
Unlike the majority of French opera prologues of the period, that belonging to Idomenee is not a royal encomium but one concerning the power of love over forces of nature which is later paralleled, to some extent, in the opera itself. The action takes place in and around Crete. Ilione, daughter of the Trojan King Priam, has rejected Idomenee, King of Crete, in favour of his son Idamante whom she secretly loves. It is announced that Idomenee has drowned in a storm at sea, whereupon Ilione and Idamante openly declare their love for one another. Agamemnon's daughter Electra also loves Idamante and burns with jealous rage. But Idomenee has been rescued by Neptune, who makes him promise that he will sacrifice the first person he meets on returning to terra firma. That person is his son Idamante. Idomenee warns him to be fearful of his father's presence while Electre and Venus plot to destroy both of them. Idomenee attempts to protect Idamante by making him escort Electre from Crete back to Argos. But he receives a message from the gods to keep his promise to Neptune or else play host to a sea-monster which will wreak havoc in Crete. The gods are as good as their word, the monster appears, sets to work but is slain by Idamante. Believing that all is now well, Idomenee, reconciled to the IlioneIdamante situation, prepares for appropriate celebrations. But all is far from well. In the midst of festivities Nemesis appears. The gods are not appeased. Idomenee, in a moment of insanity, kills his son and, when his senses return, attempts suicide. But he is restrained by his subjects. Ilione is distraught:''To punish him, leave him alive; it is I alone who must die''.
I was first made aware of Campra's Idomenee by a passing reference to it in Edward Dent's book
Campra's score is an attractive one but, while never perhaps reaching the imaginative heights scaled by his contemporary Marais in the oft-cited storm ''symphonie'' and chorus of his opera Alcyone (Act 4), has few if any longueurs. Campra is skilful in his intrumental writing, which plays a prominent part in the texture throughout the opera; the Third Act, for instance, contains a captivating ''air des matelots'' for piccolos, drums and strings while the Fourth, in its opening instrumental prelude, reveals the composer's feeling for string textures, as well as containing an affecting little musette later on. The Second Act storm scene is effective, though as I have implied, Campra's weather conditions are less ferocious than those of Marais. The arrival of Nemesis in Act 5, however, is very powerfully conveyed, as are the remaining darkly shaded moments of the drama. Generally speaking the music underlines the lighter, lyrical gifts for which Campra has been justly praised and the closing passages of the opera confirm a fluency in an altogether different affective range.
In his vocal writing Campra shows greater understanding of, or at least sympathy for, singers' requirements than many of his contemporaries. By and large the parts lie within a comfortable tessitura though in no other sense is virtuosity confined. As well as lively, technically athletic ariettes, though not so called by Campra, there are vividly characterized scenes such as those in which Venus, Jealousy and his attendants plot their assault on Idomenee (Act 2 scenes 7 and 8), and passages of finely sustained dialogue, above all one between Idomenee and Idamante (Act 2 scene 4). And their bitter, tormented duet for (Act 3 scene 2) is striking both for its intensity and the clarity of its declamation.
To sum up, here is an opera which proves itself well deserving of the attention paid it by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. For me this will not be one of those recordings which once heard, gather dust thereafter. If not in the end a great opera, it at least has the virtue of being consistently effective and the best things in it are well above the jottings of a petit-maitre. Supple choruses, mostly very well sung, colourful divertissements and a profusion of beguiling airs make this a tempting proposition.'