"Idomeneo is a treasure in operatic history." So says Tseng Dau-hsiong (曾道雄), who will both direct and conduct Mozart's opera at Taipei's National Theater for three performances next week.
"I guarantee our audiences will not be bored," he continued. "This great opera is very, very attractive."
The question that immediately springs to mind is why there's any need for this justification. No one feels it necessary to say that Mozart's Nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni won't bore audiences - they've been entertaining them all over the world for more than 200 years. So what's the problem?
The problem is that Idomeneo has been perceived as a colossal bore almost since the day of its premier in Munich in 1781. Despite performances of Mozart's five most popular operas at New York's Metropolitan Opera stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century, the first ever staging there of Idomeneo didn't happen, incredibly, until 1983.
The long-standing tradition is that Mozart, a musical genius in every genre he touched, was essentially a master of operatic comedy. There are wistful passages in Figaro and Giovanni, and solemn ones in The Magic Flute. But Idomeneo is unrelievedly solemn from beginning to end. It belongs to an 18th-century genre known as opera seria (serious opera) as opposed to opera buffa (comic opera), and this, with its empty gesturing of ancient Greek heroes, has long been considered a dead letter.
But with the over-exposure of Mozart's mature comic masterpieces, some people have resolved to discover what lay elsewhere. Maybe opera seria had something to be said for it after all. Handel's operas, written earlier in the 18th century and invariably with classical subjects, had been successfully staged after two centuries of neglect. What about Mozart's ventures in the same genre?
"Mozart showed his wise judgment in the quarrel that was raging at the time about what constituted opera seria," Tsang said. "The details are technical today, but both sides in the argument had their points, and Mozart simply combined the best of each. Idomeneo possesses many beautiful arias and ensembles, together with powerful choruses.
"Taiwanese audiences have seen many Mozart operas, but no opera seria ones. As a musician and educator, I feel it my duty to widen people's experience, and open their eyes to some of his lesser-known masterpieces. For this task I consider Idomeneo an appropriate choice."
The gist of the opera's plot is that Idomeneo, King of Crete, is saved from a shipwreck and vows to sacrifice the first person he sees on shore in gratitude to the god Neptune. Who he meets is his only son Idamante. After attempts to avoid the sacrifice, the princess Ilia, who loves Idamante, offers to be sacrificed instead. But the voice of Neptune decrees he'll be satisfied if Idomeneo hands over power to a new king, Idamante, and his Queen Ilia.
The opera hit the headlines in 2006 when Deutsche Oper in Berlin staged a production where, in an unhistorical departure from the original, Idomeneo was presented with the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, the Greek god Poseidon and Mohammed. After the protests against the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, the performances were cancelled. Extended discussions followed, but then the show went ahead, without interruption or significant protest.