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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (1640) [148.00]
text by Giacomo Badoaro (arr. Raymond Leppard)
Ulisse - Benjamin Luxon (bar)
Penelope - Janet Baker (mezzo)
Minerva - Anne Howells (mezzo)
Nettuno - Robert Lloyd (bass)
Giove - Brian Burrows (tenor)
Ericlea - Virginia Popova (mezzo)
Telemaco - Ian Caley (tenor)
L’humana Fragilta - Annabel Hunt (alto)
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
Stage Direction: Sir Peter Hall; Design: John Bury
rec. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1973.
Video Direction: David Heather
Notes in English, Français, and Deutsch.
Menu Subtitles in Italiano, Deutsch, Français, English, Castellano.
NTSC 4:3. DVD 9. Region 0. 48kHz 16 bit PCM Stereo 2.0 channel sound.
ARTHAUS MUSIK/EURO ARTS 101 101 [148.00]


Comparison recordings:

[DVD] Thomas Allen, Kathleen Kuhlman, Geoffrey Tate, Salzburg Festival Opera {arr. H. W. Henze}. RM Arts VHS and Region 1 NTSC DVD

[audio only] Sven Olaf Eliasson, Norma Lerer, arr/cond. Harnoncourt (excerpts) [ADD] Warner Apex 2564 61508-2

[audio only] Christoph Prégardien, Barbara Fink, Guy de May, arr/cond. René Jacobs. (excerpts) [ADD] Harmonia Mundi HMC 901427.29 

This magnificent work exists in a single manuscript copy with the music written out on five staves with no indication as to which instruments were to be used, hence all modern productions have to be from assigned orchestral parts. Also, there are several parts of the score which are fragmentary and require reconstruction. In most cases it is the conductor who writes out the instrumental parts, but for the Salzburg production Hans Werner Henze produced a somewhat romanticized and percussion-augmented version. All versions I have heard are perfectly satisfactory and with the opera’s current and richly deserved popularity we are probably moving towards a “standard” published version. 

When great artists and a great work come together no wrong can result, but, due to the fragmentary nature of the original of this work, there will be differences. Leppard’s instrumentation is truer to Monteverdi’s times than the Salzburg version by Henze. Sets and costumes in this Royal Opera production also are “modern” in that they refer to Monteverdi’s Italy rather than to Ancient Greece, as in the Salzburg production. 

For those of you who don’t know the opera, perhaps Monteverdi’s greatest existing work, and one of the greatest of all operas, it relates the stories of books XIV through XXIII of Homer’s Odyssey, plus the addition of a prologue consisting of the various Greek Gods boasting of how they will have fun causing this man to suffer while a representative of the human species writhes helpless under their spears and gibes. 

I found this casting of a completely nude young girl in the “Prologue” inappropriate. This is supposed to be a philosophical discourse, not a B&D flick. I am not a mere prude, and had no objections at all to Eyes Wide Shut. But here I feel that a body stocking would have been more in keeping with the mood of the opera, the aesthetic of classical antiquity and the sensibilities of Monteverdi’s day. I would expect this was heatedly discussed pro and con in the press at the time of the public performances and I will say only that I think it obvious that the natural player in the “Prologue” is Ulysses himself, as with Thomas Allen, naked but for a diaper, in the Salzburg production. Also it seems to me that the Divine humbling the great hero himself is more dramatic than humbling someone who is already humble. If Benjamin Luxon did not want to get naked on stage, he could use a body double à la Hollywood. Unfortunately for my opinion the part of L’humana Fragilta was written simply for a mezzo-soprano or tenor voice, male or female, and nobody knows which was used in the original performances. It is not unlikely that the same mezzo who sang Penelope would double as L’humana Fragilta, even as at the Salzburg production the part was doubled with Ulysses, since both equally are the victims of cruel fate. 

Monteverdi invented opera as an extended recitative divided into dramatic scenes. He of all people would appreciate Wagner and Wagner certainly stole as much from Monteverdi as he stole from everybody else. The operatic strophic aria, the set-piece, the tune, were not in his bag of tricks. His greatest single operatic fragment is the aria “Lasciatemi Morire” (also in madrigal form) the only surviving music from the lost opera Ariadne, and it is a magnificent soliloquy. 

The three greatest moments in this opera are: Penelope’s first aria, a soliloquy depicting her loneliness; her final solo aria where she expresses her anguished disbelief that her husband has actually come home, afraid to believe it; and the final duet with Ulyses where all her doubts are swept away in the moment of joyous reunion. We are fortunate to have four recorded performances of Penelope’s two solos to compare. 

Mss Fink and Larer sing very beautifully and are supported by excellent production. However, in the company of Kuhlmann and Baker, there is really no contest. If this comes down to a battle of the mezzos, I pronounce it a draw. Each delivers one of the great performances of the century and if you love opera and love Monteverdi, you must have both. This is truly one of Dame Janet’s great performances. She is in magnificent voice throughout. Having some small experience with her live performances, I know she could have bad days, but here she is very, very good throughout. 

Benjamin Luxon is not only a fine Ulysses, both as a singer and actor, but an accomplished bowsman. In the climactic scene, he shoots real arrows with Ulysses’ bow as the cast move convincingly and quickly out of the way with what may be genuine panic. 

David Hughes gets credit for the subtitles, but, with an it’s for its, see for sea, Ithaka for Ithaca, and an occasional random “|”, Mr. Hughes needs a spell-checker. 

I am grateful to Prof. Mark Ringer whose book Monteverdi, Opera’s First Master offered invaluable insights and the opportunity to hear the Jacobs excerpts on the included CD.

Paul Shoemaker 


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