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S & H Opera Review

Monteverdi, 'Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria' Les Arts Florissants, Barbican Theatre, 17th March. (ME)



'This night, we went to the Opera, which are Comedies & other plays represented in recitative Musick by the most excellent Musitians vocal & instrumental, together with variety of Seanes painted & contrived with no lesse art of Perspective..So taken together it is doubtlesse one of the most magnificent & expensfull diversions the Wit of Men can invent.' Thus John Evelyn, in his 'Venetian Diary,' written in 1645 some four years after the first performance of Monteverdi's great opera: those of us fortunate enough to attend the present 'magnificent diversion' were not treated to any 'variety of Seanes,' this clearly being much too 'expensfull' for London in the present climate, but the 'recitative Musick' was presented by 'the most excellent Musitians vocal & instrumental, ' that any of us could ever hope to hear.

The stage was simply set with the small orchestra and continuo behind the main acting area, although the boundaries between the singers and the players were fluid and frequently broken down to either comic or poignant effect; the sharply etched playing was a joy throughout, especially the wonderfully apt use of continuo, and it all happened with such a seeming lack of intervention by William Christie, who 'directed' from the harpsichord, organ and regals. The whole was so united that it seems almost invidious to single out individual aspects for comment, since every singer, every player exceeded anyone's dream of what baroque musicianship should be.

All the singers were dressed in either elegant or casual black, with Fortune, Minerva and Penelope in simple evening gowns and most of the rest in shirts and trousers; it did not matter that there were no brilliantly designed costumes, no intricate sets, since the direction, by Adrian Noble, so movingly and expressively delineated every single crisis in the lives of these troubled mortals and their warring gods.

Human Frailty was represented in the vulnerable, sweet voice of the counter-tenor Rachid ben Abdeslam, strongly contrasted to the alluring Fortune of Katalin Karolyi and the superb Amore of Olga Pitarch, who also took the part of Minerva. Pitarch is a singer new to me, and she is absolutely astonishing; her acting in both roles was on the level of the best straight theatre, especially as Minerva, where she carried out the Director's wonderful concept of the ever - present Deity to moving perfection. As Penelope is compelled to arrange the fatal battle, the Goddess walks behind her, echoing her actions, and she is present onstage throughout this episode, absolutely motionless in a tableau of the familiar statue of Minerva, finally exiting in a mesmerising, stately pavane. And her singing? The best Monteverdi soprano I have heard in years; lace - like ornamentation, precise, secure articulation, thrilling warmth of tone: I sat open - mouthed in amazement.

Pitarch was not alone in the astounding level of her performance, since there were also brilliantly sung and acted characterisations of Telemachus, by the beautiful tenor Cyril Auvity, whose sweet, fluid tone and sensitive phrasing gave constant pleasure; of Eumete, by the always incisive and musical Joseph Cornwell, and of Iro, by the irrepressible Robert Burt, who not only provided a brilliantly funny cameo but also managed to sing the part with real beauty of tone, a feat as difficult to bring off as that of a baritone achieving the same as Beckmesser. Penelope was sung by the dignified, elegant Marijana Mijanovi?, in as noble and moving an interpretation as I have ever heard. Her opening lament 'Di misera Regina' recalled the wonderful stillness and depth of sorrow of Janet Baker's interpretation of the role, and at every moment she startled the ear with her beautifully moulded phrasing and the dramatic pulse of her tone. It would be impossible for any sensitive listener to hear this voice in such music as 'Torno, torno.' without being deeply moved.

The 'complete man,' as Joyce described Ulysses, was sung by Kresimir Spicer, in a performance of truly staggering quality. This is another singer new to me, and his voice is unlike any I have previously heard; it is perhaps best described as a combination of Nigel Rogers, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and John Mark Ainsley, but with more sonorous low notes than any of them, sometimes even sounding baritonal. He has Rogers' muscularity of phrasing, craggy timbre and skill in florid passagework, Rolfe Johnson's achingly melancholy beauty of tone and sincerity, and Ainsley's ardent, youthful lyricism and tenderness. His duets with Telemachus and Penelope were utter perfection, as was his heroic grandeur at 'Minerva!' after he had drawn the bow, and as for 'O Fortunato Ulisse!' it was simply the most tremendous explosion of joy I have ever heard onstage, those repeated ecstatic cries of 'O, O, O, Fortunat' Ulisse,' giving the lie, if anything ever can, to Schubert's claim that 'there is no such thing as happy music.

There are certainly seldom such things as completely happy critics, but I can quite easily understand why this production apparently laid them out in the aisles when it was seen at Aix-en-Provence, since it was an evening with which I could not find a fault and which had me in tears more often than at any other opera performance. The reunion scenes between Ulysses and his son, the first where Ulysses cannot yet embrace Telemachus because he is still in disguise, and the second where they give voice to their joy, were amongst the finest pieces of music theatre I have ever witnessed in 30 years of opera - going, and as for the final recognition between Ulysses and Penelope, it simply melted sight. As Penelope tells her husband that no one knows her chaste bed but her own beloved, Ulisse turns slowly toward her, arms slightly lifted, and tells her that he does indeed know it, and the embroidered coverlet with its depiction of the goddess Diana; Penelope's contained rapture as she realises that this is indeed her husband, his joy that she has finally made that realisation, and their closing, rapturous duet with those repeated utterances of 'Si, si.' were all sung and acted with burning conviction, and were followed by a stunned silence which was even more eloquent than the subsequent rapturous applause.

Melanie Eskenazi


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