Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1985)

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26 April 2006 | standardmetal
| Astonishing!
This 1985 video from the Salzburg Festival presents the 1641 opera by Monteverdi in an updating by the contemporary German composer, Hans Werner Henze, and this has proved to be a very controversial production.

For one thing, some kind of reconstruction is necessary since the early manuscripts are little more than a melody line and figured bass and any orchestration is non-existent as far as I know. But Henze has orchestrated the opera in a way I find very satisfactorily if startling. The emphasis on trumpets and percussion is bound to rub most Monteverdi experts (of which I am not one!) the wrong way although both have been used in other of his works.

But this does contribute greatly to the grandness of the effect particularly when the Gods Jove (Zeus), Neptune (Poseidon), Minerva (Athena) and Amor (Cupid) make their appearances complete with their attributes (Lightening bolts, trident, armor and spear, and bow and arrow respectively). Minerva usually appears on a cloud, an effect which was probably authentic to the period. Delores Ziegler as Minerva is also fine physically and vocally though she's rather a stretch disguised as a shepherd boy when she first appears.

The ubiquitous Thomas Allen appears in the title role and also in the first scene, as "Human Frailty" where he wears only a loin cloth though he is dressed in the rest of the opera in his role of Ulysses. He is first-rate as is Kathleen Kuhlmann as the much put-upon Penelope who, however, scowls too much for my taste. The other singers are generally fine.

The libretto by Giacomo Badoaro is based on Homer's Odyssey and takes place after the fall of Troy and Odysseus' wanderings and tells of his return to Ithaca and his reclamation of the throne. Another notable and contrasting operatic treatment of the story is by Gabriel Fauré,("Pénélope") from 1907-12.

If you want a full-blown and never boring version, this DVD is for you. If not, there are at least two other versions available (one with Nikolaus Harnoncourt as conductor.) which are, no doubt more authentic but I haven't seen either.

April 28th: I've now seen some of the William Christie version and an interview with Mr. Christie does make some points clearer:

1. The ritornelli (the fuller sounding sections which "return" as in the title of this opera.) are fully scored but the rest are only treble and bass lines as I said.

2. In these ritornelli, Henze would seem to have allowed his percussion freer range than in this version.

I find that the all-purpose modern costumes (On the Christie DVD, "Human Frailty" is not even as dressed as Thomas Allen in the same part. ;-)) detract from the effect of the opera on the Christie version so the Henze version is still much more vivid. Though I don't plan to watch this version fully, let alone review it, I found it an interesting contrast.

July 5th: And now I've seen some of the Nikolaus Harnoncourt version and again don't really want to review it for the moment. This version tends to differentiate the characters of the gods by the dolls they carry. The tempos are generally faster and the voice parts more highly ornamented. It is well-sung and effective enough.

Human Frailty in this version is also played by the same singer who plays Ulisse (Dietrich Henschel) and, though he is bare-chested, he wears long trousers. Vesselina Kasarova who played the lead in Belle Hélène, La (1996) plays Penelope in this version.

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