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Naxos booklet writer solves longstanding art mystery for the Royal Academy

November 18, 2011

Courtesy of The Musicians Company’s Preserve Harmony magazine

Two Old Masters at the Academy…

…O Watteau surprise!

One of our outgoing Master’s interests in recent years has been writing booklet essays and historical opera notes for some of our well-known record companies, notably Naxos, whose splendid variety and range of CDs and DVDs increases every month.

André Campra

One such CD opera set (Naxos 8.660250–52) about which Paul Campion wrote two years ago was Mozart’s Idomeneo, composed in 1780 for the Elector of Bavaria. During research for this issue Paul learned that Mozart’s opera was based on an earlier work entitled Idoménée, by the French composer André Campra (1660–1744), who is sadly now little remembered. Both operas tell the story of Idomeneus, King of Crete, who led the Cretan armies in the Trojan Wars. The operas’ plots include a terrible storm and shipwreck, from which Idomeneus is saved by the helpful intervention of the god Neptune.

Fast forward to 15 April this year and a visit to the Royal Academy of Arts’ splendid exhibition of drawings by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). These are quite spectacular, in their small scale and detailed way—everything from portraiture to landscapes via theatrical costumes. One particular drawing among these gems, which was on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, is entitled The Shipwreck; but, as the curators noted ruefully in the catalogue:

‘…so far none of the attempts at interpreting the subject has been convincing…Why does Neptune wreak his vengeance on the four passengers from the ship? Is this an illustration for an opera, a play?…Perhaps readers will be able to help us to solve this mystery’

The Shipwreck by Antoine Watteau

Seeing this drawing, a bell rang loudly in Paul’s memory. This was a familiar scene from both Campra’s and Mozart’s operas. Watteau lived before Mozart was born but when did Campra compose his opera? Well, it was in 1712, the very same year that experts have dated the drawing. Could opera and picture indeed be a match?

After a brief exchange of emails with the Royal Academy, the identification of Watteau’s drawing as a scene from Campra’s opera Idoménée was accepted by both the exhibition’s curators and the Ashmolean Museum, thus solving a pictorial mystery of more than two hundred years’ standing. To the delight of all parties, one old Master had recognised an even older master—and all thanks to a Naxos compact disc!

For information about The Musicians Company and Preserve Harmony magazine visit


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