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Return of Monteverdi

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on February 24, 2004)
Virgin Classics 7243 4 90613 9 2
Claudio Monteverdi settled in Venice, as maestro di cappella at San Marco, but was not to return to the genre of opera until a couple years before his death. It was in 1640 at the Teatro di SS. Giovanni e Paolo, the wildly successful Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria: it was, as Ellen Rosand notes in her extremely valuable book on Monteverdi's last three operas, "not only the first, but also the last Venetian opera to be heard in successive seasons throughout the entire seventeenth century" (Monteverdi's Last Operas, p. 7). Although the work was revived earlier in the 20th century, it was the production led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, an anniversary commemorated a few years with a new DVD from the Zurich Opera, that really put this opera back on the map. Harnoncourt even made his own realization of the score based on the skeletal manuscript, in the hand of a copyist and not Monteverdi, now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Wolf Trap Opera has selected the work for its second staged production (Kim Pensinger Witman, showing exceptionally good taste, admits that Monteverdi is one of her favorite composers). The production opens tonight, the photos look great, and we expect it to be the best part of that company's season.

In preparation for my review, it was good to revisit this recent performance by Les Arts Florissants, from the 2002 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, now available on DVD. Monteverdi's opera was first performed at the Teatro di SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in February 1640, one of the early pieces that helped set the course of commercial opera in Venice in the mid-17th century, although Rosand notes that that development was already well under way when Monteverdi came on the scene. Giacomo Badoaro, a Venetian nobleman and member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, one of whose goals was to revive the classical Greek tragedy (and, according to Rosand, "the exploitation of history for political purposes"), wrote the libretto, apparently in the hopes of luring Monteverdi back into opera composition. The story is drawn from Books 13 to 23 of Homer's Odyssey, with an allegorical prologue that shows the figure of Human Frailty as the plaything of Time, Fortune, and Love, which helpfully instructs the audience in the opera's three ultimate lessons about the things one is unlikely to be able to change in life.

available at Amazon
Ellen Rosand, Monteverdi's Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy
(University of California Press, 2007)

Preview on Google Books
Adrian Noble's production is admirably clear and beautiful, with terra cotta vases and orange sand evoking Ithaca (sets and costumes by Anthony Ward) and a few simple stage effects for some of the ancillary scenes, like an ingenious triangle of billowing fabric for the sail of the Phaeacians who bring Ulisse to his homeland and a blue-lit one over which Minerva flies with Telemaco on a suspended pole. The character of L'Umana Fragilità is memorably incarnated by the vulnerable nakedness and tiny thread of voice of countertenor Rachid ven Abdeslam, although as a teacher who sometimes shows opera DVDs to young students, that puts this production off the list for showing to middle or high schoolers. Rosand confirms that this allegorical character is quite rare in 17th-century opera libretti, although Cesare Ripa does describe Human Frailty in his celebrated Iconologia as "an old, afflicted woman, poorly dressed, with an emaciated face, holding icicles in her hand that symbolize the fragility of human life" (p. 137).

In a nice bonus on this DVD, William Christie gives a ten-minute interview, from the pit, about the opera, in which he describes, among other things, how he did not think it appropriate to cast all of the roles in this work with major voices. In keeping with that aim, the lead roles are all vocally quite striking, while the supporting cast and chorus are hit and miss. The striking mezzo-soprano Marijana Mijanović is perfect as long-suffering Penelope, her unusual voice, admired in Floridante and other recordings, matched by an unquestionably regal stage presence. So much of the dramatic weight rests on Penelope, making the role crucial to the success of the opera in many ways. Mijanović's husband, the Croatian tenor Krešimir Špicer, is a convincing Ulisse, although eclipsed in many ways by the vocally and dramatically amazing Olga Pitarch as Minerva (and completely different as Amore in the prologue and when disguised as the shepherd). Tenor Cyril Auvity, whom we last heard in Christie's most recent performance in Washington (in 2004 -- sob!), was in as sweet and guileless a voice as we remembered, nowhere more than in the touching duet of father and son, as Telemaco is reunited with Ulisse. There are other worthy performances, if not necessarily for their vocal qualities.

The only real drawback of this version, in terms of what Ulisse to own if you want to own only one, is the sound (video direction by Humphrey Burton). The camera work involves a lot of closeups, which adds to the intimacy of the setting (the small theater of the Jeu de Paume at Aix-en-Provence), but the microphones return a sound that is too varied, as singers move in and out of range. It may be realistic in terms of preserving the sense of watching a staged opera, but for anyone primarily interested in hearing the music, it is very frustrating to have to set the volume far above what should be required just to hear the singers. For the record, Christie uses Alan Curtis's edition of the opera, published by Novello in 2002; Rinaldo Alessandrini also made an edition for Bärenreiter in 2007, which leaves the matter of instrumentation unresolved but has more suggestions of figures added in the continuo line. Any performance of the opera is going to involve significant reconstruction.

Rosand draws many connections between Ulisse and Monteverdi's penultimate opera, Le nozze d'Enea in Lavinia, which has no surviving musical sources. She describes them as part of a trilogy about Venice as the divinely appointed successor to Rome, thus tracing epic history from the Trojan War to the voyage of Aeneas to found Rome. The same legend about the founding of Venice was referenced in other operas produced in La Serenissima in the 17th century, by Giulio Strozzi and others. Rosand argues that by analogy, Monteverdi's last opera, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, is the last in a trilogy, although Monteverdi never explicitly called them a trilogy, and its story relates to the downfall of Rome, the last act of Venice's ascendancy.


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