Monteverdi Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Author: 
Iain Fenlon

Monteverdi Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

  • (Il) Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

In comparison to Monteverdi's other late opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea, the meaning of Il ritorno d'Ulisse seems comfortingly straightforward. Right from the start we are left in no doubt about the moral message of the work; its main theme, the rewards of constancy and virtue, is foreshadowed in the prologue and then immediately and firmly set into place in the opening of the work proper, Penelope's powerful lament ''Di misera Regina''. And although it is not as dissonant as Monteverdi's better-known ''Lamento d'Arianna'', Penelope's anguish at Ulysses's long absence achieves its effect through similar means: frequent changes in tempo, subtle variations of phrase lengths and rhetorically-motivated phrase repetitions. Because of the placing, function and sheer length of ''Di misera Regina'', failure or even miscalculation here is critical. But with Bernarda Fink, a contralto of sustained power and subtlety who has recorded with Rene Jacobs before, notably as Teodata in his fine account of Handel's Flavio also on Harmonia Mundi (7/90) the extremes of Monteverdi's emotional range as Penelope moves from anguish to near-suicidal despair are convincingly etched. This involves taking a very flexible view of the beat, a position that not all purists would agree with, but the result is a coherent interpretation which not only pays attention to the details but also shows a firm grasp of the overall architecture. It is a fine start to what turns out to be a performance with many fine qualities.
Jacobs's carefully thought-out version of Ritorno is, as the accompanying booklet makes clear, a ''realisation musicale'' originally worked out for a production of the opera at Montpellier in 1992. Using the following surviving librettos rather than the single, clearly incomplete manuscript score now in Vienna, Jacobs has arranged the music into five acts rather than the Vienna manuscript's three, and has added extra music (both by Monteverdi and by other composers) when necessary. This certainly has the effect of making the sequence of events dramatically smoother, and the additions are very much in the patchwork spirit of seventeenth-century opera composition, often the assembled work of a number of hands. More controversial though is Jacobs's decision to use a comparatively rich palette of instrumental colours including trombones, recorders and cornets, and to involve a varied continuo grouping which contains lute guitar, harp and theorbo in addition to keyboards, cello and lirone, a wealth of resources that the Venetian opera houses seem not to have had. With these to hand, Jacobs has imaginatively orchestrated the sparse indications of the Vienna score, which for much of the time presents little more than a figured bass and vocal lines, and has added written obbligato parts. Inevitably this increases the percentage of music that is not by Monteverdi, and for purists at least will disfigure a good deal of the music that is; in this Jacobs is spiritually very much at one with Harnoncourt's earlier recording (Teldec, 12/72—nla).
It is something of a commonplace to say that Ritorno shows Monteverdi's extraordinary creative power in his last years, certainly it illuminates almost every aspect of human experience in a way that was without precedent. A good example of the idea in practice, and one of the most magical moments in the entire score, is the depiction of Ulysses awakening. It is a moment which Christoph Pregardien exploits to the full in a beautifully-controlled and sensitive reading which is one of the finest things on this record. Here, and elsewhere, Pregardien shows himself to be a singer with considerable insight into the very particular qualities of Monteverdi's late operatic language, and above all into that highly-charged arioso-recitative through which he explores the complexities of a rich variety of emotional states.
In addition, the score also conveys some sense of a rough, emerging idea of characterization in music. The gods, occasional intruders from an earlier mythological tradition, maintain their dignity in a style of writing familiar from the earlier operas. In this sense Neptune is the natural successor of Charon and Pluto in Orfeo, a deep authoritative bass whose words are rather ponderously painted in conventional musical images; the mood is perfectly captured by Michael Schopper, one of the most accomplished performers of the minor roles, and well-versed in the style. For the characters whose function is to provide light relief unrelated to the plot, there is another type of music the character of Iro is in fact the prototype for a whole series of buffo types (drunkards, simpletons and other unfortunates) who were to populate later Venetian operas. What Iro provides, at least initially, is an opportunity for a detailed essay in comic realism complete with laughs, stutters and sighs, a neat piece of characterization that Guy de Mey, also no stranger to the style, brings off with style.
In the end it is Monteverdi's mellifluous and flexible recitative style, capable of easy movement between declamation and arioso, which remains in the memory as the dominant language of the work. Paradoxically, nowhere in the course of Ritorno are the possibilities of this style of writing more extensively explored than in the final appearance of Iro, now transformed by Badoaro and Monteverdi from commedia dell'arte to a figure of stature, capable of transcending the limitations of his comic status. As his mood gradually becomes increasingly frenetic, comedy slides towards madness and then, shockingly, towards death. This defeated beggar, the butt of jokes, a low specimen of humanity, becomes, in his decision to commit suicide, a genuinely tragic figure. De Mey exploits the full range of this complex delineation with understanding, authority and taste. The result is a highly memorable tour de force, one of a number of high-points which combine to make this new recording something of a milestone in the history of the interpretation of the work. Certainly there is room for a different view of Monteverdi's intentions as indicated in the score, but the sheer musicality and informed imagination of this version carries the music across the footlights in a way which brings it richly alive. In the year of the 350th anniversary of the composer's death, this is a recording that all serious Monteverdians will wish to return to frequently.'

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