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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Il Ritorno díUlisse in Patria. text by Giacomo Badoaro: highlights (1640) [76.32]
Ladislau Anderko ... Giove
Nikolak Simkowski ... Nettuno
Rotraud Hansmann ... Minerva
Margaret Baker-Genovesi ... Junone
Sven Olaf Eliasson ... Ulisse
Norma Lerer ... Penelope
Kai Hansen ... Telemaco
Margaret Baker-Genovesi ... Melanto
Max von Egmond ... Eumenete
Anne Marie MŁhle ... Ericlea
Junge Kantorei/Joachim Martini
Concentus Musicus/Nicolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded 1971 ADD
Notes in English, FranÁais, and Deutsch. Synopsis, no texts.
WARNER APEX 2564 61508-2 [76.32]


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Comparison Recording:

Il Ritorno (complete, orch. Henze) Allen, Kuhlmann, King, Tear, Tate, Salzburg Festival 1985. RM Arts VHS and Region 1 NTSC DVD

The comparison recording uses the Henze orchestration of the original prologue/five act version. In a highlight concert it hardly makes any point to refer to these highlights being from the five act or, as in the case of this recording, the three act version; the highlights would likely be identical anyway. The opera runs almost exactly three hours, so these excerpts, from the first of Harnoncourtís three recordings, constitute a little over 40% of the whole show. Il Ritorno is the second longest of Monteverdiís surviving operas. Harnoncourt has recorded a great deal of music in his career, but he has recorded this work three times demonstrating the importance he attaches to this music.

The comparison video has the advantage of the magnificent voice of Kathleen Kuhlmann in the part of Penelope. She is a singer of enormous dramatic abilities comparable only to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson or Ljuba Organosova. However, even compared to this exalted standard, this first Penelope of Harnoncourtís, Norma Lerer, comes across very well. The difference is not that Kuhlmann sounds so much better; indeed the intense expression of dramatic phrases can often make the vocal line less beautiful. Lerer creates a touching sense of sadness and longing. But when Kuhlmann sings you feel it in your belly. However, another advantage of the studio excerpts is that in the Salzburg staging, with so many people on stage and so much going on, every now and then someone walks away from a microphone and the voice fades out. Itís the inevitable casualty of a complex opera staging, but also an argument to have a good studio recording in your collection as a supplement.

Some would argue that such intense emotions are out of place in a classic opera such as this, but perhaps they donít know Monteverdi and the importance of his art. His operas present the full range of human experience from light comedy to the most primal of passions and feelings ó grief over death, fear of death, to endure abandonment. Monteverdiís world was a world we* donít know, a world where most people died young and painfully, where only the rich could afford opium, where beloved lives full of promise were chopped off and there was nothing to do but put it out of your mind and move forward, however your heart was breaking ó survive ó forget. Monteverdiís tragic arias do not look to a time when everything will be better, but carry the awfulness of an eternal now of pain that only the more fearful pain of death can heal. The people who listened to Monteverdiís arias were people who could no longer accept unquestioningly the palliative of the Churchís pat answers, people who had heard the long, lingering screams of the dying and who relived that experience in the theater as a courageous act of will, the transmutation of horror into great art offering a suggestion that there is, however incomprehensibly, a noble and benign pattern to life and destiny after all.

At the beginning of this opera Ulysses as Everyman appears on stage naked** and alone pleading his weakness. The Gods enter and prance around him gloating over how puny he is and how they will make him suffer. Why would the audience put up with this? The same reason critics put up with early Jackson Pollockís canvasses of exploding blood and guts ó because itís art and because itís truth and the combination makes it sublime.

It must have been especially important to Monteverdiís audience that the incident of Ulyssesí dog remembering him and welcoming him home after 20 years is included in this opera even though this moment is utterly unsuitable to the stage.

Listening to these earliest of the operas is to climb to a high place and look out across the plain of the future to see all that is to come. The pre-echoes of Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, even Philip Glass, reflect to us from these phrases. Monteverdi is our musical Chaucer. And, like Chaucer, he always gives us a right good show for our money.

Which is to say that a disk of excerpts is particularly inappropriate for a Monteverdi opera, and, to one not used to his style, even that much may strain the patience. In this disk there are lyrical declamations, but no tunes. Monteverdi was the first to write ďverismoĒ and while his operas are easily divided into scenes, they do not consist of easily excerpted and truncated recitatives and arias as later operas did. Any of the three complete Harnoncourt recordings would provide an important document in contrast to the Henze orchestration which, while not authentic, is often very effective and only occasionally jarring or anachronistic. Harnoncourtís most recent recording, available now on DVD, stars Vesselina Kasarova and is likely to be excellent, although Iíve not had a chance to see or hear it. If you do not know this work and do not wish to buy a video, then most surely buy this disk and enjoy it; and, when and if you eventually move on to the whole work you will still refer to it now and then for the beauty and intensity of these performances.

*At least no Europeans under fifty know it. To some of us old guys it can seem quite familiar.

**In the 1985 Michael Hampe staging with [now Sir] Thomas Allen: 1640, a verismo opera with a nude scene. How modern can you get? ďVerismoĒ usually applied only to a few late 19th century operas, and can be taken to mean ďunsentimental, set in any time period, dealing with the unpleasant realities of life.Ē If you can think of an unpleasant reality of life that is not included in this opera, let me know about it. But then, I guess it is a happy ending, sort of...

Paul Shoemaker

 

 



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