Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Homecoming of Ulysses) was composed and first performed in Venice in 1640, rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, and only established as an authentic “lost” work of Claudio Monteverdi in the mid-twentieth century. It was presented at Jordan Hall by Boston Baroque on Friday evening, April 25th, with a repeat performance on Saturday evening at 7:30 pm; this review is of the Friday evening performance. The opera tells a deeply moving story that has apparently not lost its appeal to modern audiences. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera brought a powerful stage presence and a flexible vocal technique to the role of Penelope. Navigating Monteverdi’s expressive recitative and lyric outbursts with equal aplomb, she evoked the many layers of an increasingly complex character, clinging to her beleaguered widowhood and resisting the extravagant blandishments of the suitors who have taken over her home. As Ulisse, tenor Fernando Guimarães was less forthright dramatically but equally accomplished vocally, with a rhythmic and tonal clarity that remained distinct even in his lowest range.
In this semi-staged production, conceived and directed by Mark Streshinsky, with a new performing score prepared by music director Martin Pearlman, the instrumental ensemble was placed center stage and surrounded by semi-circular platforms in two ranks. In the absence of Baroque machinery, gods and goddesses appeared from behind a scrim at the back of the stage, a simple yet elegant solution. Costumes were minimal: contemporary evening dress for most, with wardrobe props such as belted-on rapiers for the suitors and a gold coat for Jupiter. Martin Pearlman led the vocal and instrumental ensemble from the harpsichord. The remainder of the continuo group consisted of two theorbos, Baroque guitar, organ, a second harpsichord, and cello. The orchestra included three first and three second violins, two violas, and cello, along with two bass viols and a violone (double bass viol). Pairs of recorders and cornetts added color on occasion. Lively pacing made the most of the contrast between arioso passages in heightened speech rhythm and dance-like numbers in triple time. Some recitatives were accompanied only by the theorbos, allowing for rhythmically flexible delivery of the text. An English translation of the original Italian text by Giacomo Badoaro was projected onto panels left and right of the stage.
A moralizing tone was set from the beginning with the Prologue. As Human Frailty, Christopher Lowrey stumbled onto the stage in rags, his high countertenor embodying a pathetic figure quite different from the stalwart sailor he played later on. With his deep and resonant bass, João Fernandes was powerful as all-destructive Time and doubled as a stentorian Neptune. Soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad was a seductive Fortune, and Sara Heaton (soprano) an adroit figure of Love. All three claimed to control man’s fate.
The libretto calls for extended soliloquies by each of the principal characters. Penelope’s moving opening scene bemoans her unjust fate and calls for the return of Ulisse. The following scene between her maid, mezzo Abigail Nims, and her lover, tenor Daniel Shirley, brought lighthearted relief, both musically and dramatically, as the two exchanged dance-like song stanzas while cavorting nimbly about the narrow stage platforms. Awaking after being washed up on the shores of Ithaca, Ulisse’s rage against the gods paralleled Penelope’s anger. Tenor Aaron Sheehan was a stellar Telemaco, his hesitation turning to joy as he recognized his father. Krista River’s rounded tone brought special warmth, first to her anguished soliloquy and then to her belated narrative of how Ulisse’s true form was revealed to her by an old hunting scar.
There were sly comic hints throughout, from the rejected suitors’ show of force with drawn swords, to their comic presentation to Penelope of extravagant gifts and her pretended yielding to their flattery. The comedy of Iro, the gluttonous hanger-on, played and sung to the hilt by tenor Marc Molomot, turned to pathos when, after the killing of the suitors at the hand of Ulisse, he realized that he himself had been destroyed by his insatiable hunger.
In the end, even the gods settle their differences and agree that Ulisse has suffered enough. The final recognition scene between Penelope and Ulisse, in which Penelope breaks into ecstatic ornamental song, was both moving and joyful.