Opera Scotland

Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria; Ulysses' Return Home

Music
Claudio Monteverdi (born Cremona, 15 May 1567; died Venice, 29 November 1643)

Text
Giacomo Badoaro.

Source
Classical Greek Epic Poem The Odyssey by Homer.

Premières
First performance: Venice (Teatro S Cassiano), February 1640.
First UK performance: BBC, 16 January 1928; London (St Pancras Town Hall), 16 March 1965.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 1 September 1978.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Background
Monteverdi is widely regarded as the first great opera composer. His surviving operas are superb, even if there is an element of doubt as to what extent he was in fact the composer, and whether his students and assistants sometimes provided help, as happened with the great painters who were his contemporaries. Ulisse is in some ways typical of operas of the day, using classical legends to provide subject matter. The mortal characters are all entirely three-dimensional, and the emotional impact can be very moving in performance. The allegorical framework presents various gods and goddesses, who discuss and decide to punish the mortals’ errors. Even they seem almost human. Early revivals in the mid-20th century, tended to over-elaborate the orchestration, to make the idiom more familiar to audiences. Now that the works are accepted on their own terms, a far sparer approach to presentation is accepted.

Main Characters
Neptune (bass)
Minerva (soprano)
Ulisse (tenor or baritone)
Penelope, his wife (mezzo-soprano)
Telemaco, their son (tenor or soprano)
Eumete, a swineherd (tenor)
Ericlea, Ulisse’s old nurse (mezzo-soprano)
Antinöo, Pisandro and Anfinomo, suitors of Penelope (bass and 2 tenors)

Plot Summary
The setting is the Greek island of Ithaca some years after the end of the Trojan War. In the absence of Ulysses, one of the Greeks’ leaders, his wife Penelope has governed the island, but has also been obliged to repel the attentions of a number of men who covet both her and the island. She is increasingly desperate for her husband to return. When Ulysses arrives on shore, he is warned by Minerva of the situation he will encounter, and is told to defeat the suitors. She disguises him as a shepherd. He is met by the old swineherd Eumaeus, and they are soon joined by Telemachus, who has also returned from his travels, with Minerva's help. As Eumaeus leaves to advise Penelope of her son’s return, Ulisse identifies himself to Telemachus, and he and his son have a moving reunion. At court, the suitors again try to persuade Penelope to have one of them, and as a last resort she challenges them to draw the bow left behind by Ulysses. They all fail, but Ulysses, still unrecognised, draws it successfully, and uses it to kill all the suitors. Penelope is unwilling to believe this shepherd can be Ulysses, even when encouraged by her son and Eumaeus. It is only when Ulysses' old nurse, Ericlea, announces that she has recognised him by an old scar that Penelope is convinced. The closing duet showing their reconciliation is very effective.

RECORDINGS

VIRGIN (1 DVD) Sung in Italian Recorded 2002

Conductor: William Christie. Director: Adrian Noble. Designer: Anthony Ward.
Les Arts Florissants.
Marijana Mijanovic (Penelope), Kresimir Spicer (Ulisse), Cyril Auvity (Telemaco).

This is an astonishing production, with an austere design palette which forces the audience to concentrate wholly on the drama. It is vaguely North African in feel, with lots of sand and loose flowing costumes, and not a great deal else. The results Adrian Noble draws from his actors are wonderful. It is amazing that he had so little experience as an opera director, even though he had directed actors for many years at the Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere. But it does seem quite a Shakespearian production. Equally, the small band of musicians under William Christie are fully absorbed into the drama. The production was filmed in the small theatre at Aix-en-Provence, and the sense of concentration is palpable.

ARTHAUS (1 DVD) Sung in Italian Recorded 1973
Conductor: Raymond Leppard Director: Peter Hall. Designer: John Bury.
London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Janet Baker (Penelope), Benjamin Luxon (Ulisse), Ian Caley (Telemaco).

This version now seems in many ways a period piece. At the time, the opera was hardly known in Britain, certainly played far less than the other Monteverdi scores, and this production, instantly dubbed “Monteverdi’s Flying Circus” because of the positioning of the various gods, helped bring it into view for many. Raymond Leppard’s realisation of the score is certainly lush, but that suits the luxurious Renaissance-style designs of John Bury, and Hall’s production is elegantly expressive. Janet Baker’s performance as Penelope is wonderful, especially when standing still, and Benjamin Luxon equals her. The superb cast also includes Richard Lewis, Anne Howells, Alexander Oliver, John Wakefield, and Robert Lloyd.

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1971

Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Concentus Musicus, Vienna.
Norma Lerer (Penelope), Sven Olof Eliasson (Ulisse), Ib Hansen (Telemaco).

Harnoncourt’s realisation uses original instruments, but with a more lush sound world than we would expect today. However it stills sounds effective. Sven Olof Eliasson was known more for heavier tenor repertoire (In Edinburgh in 1976 he sang both Parsifal and Aron). Norma Lerer is excellent as Penelope. The cast also includes the Scottish character tenor Murray Dickie, who spent his career in Vienna, as the glutton, Iro.

The Cast

Amore
 Cupid
Anfinomo
 Amphinomus, a suitor
Antinöo
 Antinous, a suitor
Ericlea
 Euricleia, Ulysses' old nurse
Eumete
 Eumaeus, an old swineherd
Eurimaco
 Eurymachus, a shepherd, Melantho's lover
Fortuna
 Fortune
Giove
 Jupiter
Giunone
 Juno
Humana Fragiltà
 Human Frailty
Iro
 Irus, a glutton
Melanto
 Melantho, Penelope's maid
Minerva
 
Nettuno
 Neptune
Penelope
 wife of Ulysses
Pisandro
 Peisander, a suitor
Telemaco
 Telemachus, son of Ulysses and Penelope
Tempo
 Time
Ulisse
 Ulysses, King of Ithaca

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