Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, directed by John Eliot Gardiner
185:50 (3 CDs)
SDG 730

Those looking for a HIP recording – and I assume that would apply to most readers on this site – of this marvellous product of Monteverdi’s old age should be warned this is not it. In a long and to me at times pretentious note John Eliot Gardiner makes clear that he views Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria not as an up-to-date opera in mid-17th century Venetian style, but as a continuation of that encountered in his earlier operas and works. This surely contradicts not only practicalities, but also the changed ethos of opera. Monteverdi cannot have been unaware of developments that had taken place, particularly since the advent of public opera in Venice three years before Il ritorno was first produced in 1640. Moreover the libretto, based on Homer’s Odyssey, with which Giacomo Badoaro had tempted him to the public theatre presented a totally different approach to the operas of the early years of the century. It is, for example, quite unthinkable to image the comic glutton Iro in Orfeo or any other opera of the first decades of the century.

Gardiner’s contentious proposal enables him to do two things. Firstly, to indulge in some tenuous comparisons with Shakespeare, who had not only died a quarter of a century earlier, but belonged to a different milieu and culture. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows him to indulge his preference for inflated and unidiomatic performing forces. So here, rather than the modest forces found in Venetian opera houses, Gardiner unapologetically fields a sizable orchestra including not only 6-4-1-1 strings but cornetti, recorders and dulcian in addition to a sizable continuo group that includes four archlutes (or guitars), harp, organ and harpsichord. Experienced Monteverdians will thus at times find themselves thinking they are listening to Orfeo rather than Il ritorno. This may to some sound pedantic. In fact it is not, because the use of such substantial forces tends to obstruct clear projection of text, crucial in works of this kind. Neither is the non-continuo contribution always restricted to ritornellos, as was customary in 17th century Venetian opera. Among a number of examples the worst is the addition of a tasteless violin solo to the sensuous duet at the conclusion of the delightful scene (act 1, sc 2) between the young servant lovers Melanto and Eurimaco.

It’s an unnecessary and vulgar intrusion that jars, especially as the scene is one of the best performed episodes in the opera. Otherwise there is much to be questioned, particularly in the treatment of the stile recitativo that still dominates the opera. In his notes Eliot Gardiner makes much of the work that was put into making sure both singers and instrumentalists understood the fusion of the all-important text and Monteverdi’s music. Yet to my mind much of the recitative is delivered in far too deliberate a manner, with much fragmentation, exaggeration of rhythmic flexibility and unnatural dynamic extremes. The result is not only self-indulgent and mannered but paradoxically also stilted and at times lugubrious.

The multi-national cast assembled by Gardiner has both strengths and weaknesses. I have mixed feelings about the Penelope of French mezzo Lucile Richardot. The voice itself is disconcertingly unusual, with an almost masculine quality in the chest register contrasting with pleasingly feminine head notes, the break always too apparent. Yet she brings a strong dramatic sense to the role and it is probably not her fault if the great opening monologue at times sounds more like whinging than the dignified distress of a queen. But she sings ornaments with greater conviction than most of the cast and the final, long-delayed reunion with her Ulisse is intensely moving, not least since Gardiner here allows text and music a more natural flow, enabling the drama to speak for itself. Her Ulisse is capably sung by the veteran baritone Furio Zanasi, who brings authority and long-established understanding of musical and textural syntax to the role. The voice may no longer be free of the odd rough edge – he was superior in a performance under Rinaldo Alessandrini given at the 2010 Beaunne Festival – but overall this is an impressive assumption of the role. The outstanding performance here is that of the Polish tenor Krystian Adam, whose Telemaco is perhaps the finest I’ve heard. The youthful fervency he brings to his relations with both his mother and father coupled with excellent articulation of text is totally compelling. Mention has already been made of the fine performances of the servants Melanto and Eurimaco, sung with appealingly youthful vivacity by Anna Dennis and Zachary Wilder. The remaining roles are filled with varying degrees of success.

The recording was made at live performances given in 2017 in Wroclaw, Poland, coming at the end of an extensive and, as I understand, highly successful tour of Europe and the US, during which the three extant Monteverdi operas were given in semi-staged productions. I regret not being able to add my endorsement, but feel that, as with his continued refusal to countenance Bach performances that conform to those of Bach’s own day, Sir John simply has this wrong. My recommendation remains the considerably more idiomatic performance by La Venexiana (Glossa).

Brian Robins

One reply on “Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”

I can endorse much in your review. I was in Venice in June 2017 and heard JEG’s 3 Monteverdi opera performances there in La Fenice. Krystian Adam was indeed fine. But when I challenged his improper use of a large string band and – worse – maintaining the cornetti and tromboni in the Orfeo at written pitch rather than down a fourth (which left the cornetti in difficulties), he simply shrugged and said that the low pitch and single strings simply wouldn’t be heard in La Fenice these days. He’d be inundated with complaints. So these versions were scored for effect, not to be a HIP. This made a lot of JEG’s performances in his Monteverdi tour reminding me of the version of the Incoronazione I saw at Glyndebourne in the 1960s with Raymond Leppard conducting.

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