The Boston Early Music Festival got off to a glorious start on Sunday afternoon, June 7th at the Boston University Theatre with Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). After an informative talk by Professor Ellen Rosand, a welcoming fanfare by members of the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble ushered in the opera in grand style.
Ulisse was by no means Monteverdi’s first opera, but it was the first he composed for one of the newly-established public theaters in Venice, decades after his early successes with L’Orfeo and other dramatic entertainments for the court of Mantua. With his libretto, the Venetian patrician Giacomo Badoaro hoped to woo the elderly Monteverdi back to composing operas; in a prefatory letter, he cited the composer’s skill at portraying the “affections,” the multiple shades of human emotions so masterfully depicted in his madrigal settings.
Badoaro’s source for the story of Ulysses’s return was books 13 and 14 of Homer’s Odyssey, most likely, according to Rosand (Monteverdi’s Last Operas. A Venetian Trilogy, 2007)*, via a widely read Italian verse translation published in 1573. Badoaro added a poignant opening scene for Penelope and, in the final recognition scene, replaced Homer’s description of the bed that Ulysses built with a description of the bed cover and its image of the goddess Diana. The Prologue sets the theme of the story’s dilemma: Human Frailty stands for Ulysses (both roles were sung by tenor Colin Balzer*), confronted by the blindfolded figures of Time, Fortune, and Love. Stage director and set designer Gilbert Blin placed the deities amid cutout clouds; a heavenly backdrop opened to reveal waves rolling back and forth. Costume designer Anna Watkins provided archaic tunics in muted red, and Lenore Doxsee’s ingenious lighting gave a menacing glint to the blade of Time’s scythe. John Taylor Ward’s resonant bass provided the requisite gravitas to the figure of Time, offset by fast and nimble singing by Amor (Nell Snaidas) and Fortune (Erica Schuller).
Perspective in the palace scene of Act I was represented by flats with receding columns, but instead of classicizing white marble, scenery and costumes displayed the soft reds and blues of a painting by Nicolas Poussin ; instead of blond curls, Penelope and her handmaidens wore their black hair in elaborate, archaic-looking coils and dreadlocks. Mezzo soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi was simply superb in Penelope’s first great soliloquy. Her deeply expressive recitative, with its increasing urgency, was echoed by her nurse Ericlea (mezzo Laura Pudwell). Penelope’s recurring line “Torna, deh, torna Ulisse” (Return, oh return, Ulisse) gave rise to a more tuneful concluding arioso that began in a pastoral mode only to conclude in despair. In the scene that followed, the handmaiden Melanto (soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah) and her lover Eurimaco (tenor Aaron Sheehan) brought lilting contrast to Penelope’s dark mood, declaring that love is all that matters.
Arising from the sea, Neptune (bass-baritone Matthew Brook) was persuaded by Jove (tenor Jason McStoots) to allow Ulisse to be carried to safety by the Phaeacians. Although some productions cut these supernatural scenes, they are in fact essential to the working out of the story, in which gods and humans interact; in Blin’s coherent staging, they were entirely convincing. In the next scene, Ulisse awakened from a deep sleep to find himself on a lonely shore on the island of Ithaca, wondering where he was. His impassioned monologue, paralleling Penelope’s lament in the first scene, was beautifully sung by Colin Balzer. Disguised as a shepherd boy before revealing herself as a powerful goddess, Mireille Asselin sang with bright, clear tone and charming presence. Listening to her instructions, Ulisse’s refrain-like interjections of “O fortunato Ulisse” returned to frame a cheerful little aria in triple meter, leading in turn to a concluding ritornello for the instrumental ensemble.
Opening Act II, Penelope maintained her vows of constancy despite Melanto’s advice to take a new lover. Alone in the woods, the lilting pastoral song on the beauties of rural life by the swineherd Eumete (Jason McStoots), carrying a stuffed pig, was one of the highlights of the evening. In the following scene, the comically pathetic figure of the glutton Iro (tenor Patrick Kilbride) made his first appearance. Taunting Eumete, he ended up cutting the throat of his pig, only to be chased off in a hurry. Arriving on the scene in Minerva’s chariot, Telemaco (tenor Zachary Wilder) was cautiously restrained until his fury mounted in the moving recognition scene with Ulisse, where he revealed himself as an actor and singer of considerable emotive power.
The heart of the action began in Act III with the first appearance of the suitors competing for Penelope’s hand. Represented in the opera by just three singers, they made a superbly coordinated trio of bass-baritone (Christian Immler as Antinoo), tenor (Charles Blandy as Anfinomo), and countertenor (José Lemos as Pisandro). To their persistent refrain of “Ama dunque, si, si” (Love, then, yes, yes) Penelope answered just as obstinately “Non voglio amar, no, no” (I don’t want to love, no, no). To lighten her heart, the suitors brought in a “ballo” of Moorish dancers and singers (several of them members of the Festival’s Young Artists Training Program). Learning that Telemaco had returned, they decided to do away with him and woo Penelope with gifts. In Act IV, Ulisse’s defeat of Iro in a duel foreshadows the defeat of the suitors. After Penelope receives their gifts, she appears ready to surrender, and declares that whoever can bend Ulisse’s bow shall have her hand and her empire. Tasting victory, the suitors sing a joyful chaconne (ground bass aria). Each tries the bow and fails. Finally, the disguised Ulisse begs to be allowed to try, and slays them all to the sound of Jove’s thunder. Minerva reappears in triumph.
The first scene of Act V belongs to Iro. He mourns the death of the suitors who filled his insatiable belly. Who will feed him now? As sung, and superbly acted, by Patrick Kilbride, he was more than a figure of ridicule and disgust, even evoking our sympathy as he lamented his loss and the suitors’ bodies were dragged off the stage. Finally, he too dragged off one more body as he bled to death from his own self-inflicted wound. In the final scenes of the opera, Penelope has steadfastly refused to recognize the killer of the suitors as her long-lost husband. Two scenes for the gods, Minerva, Juno, Jove, and Neptune, promise peace, safety, and forgiveness for Ulysses, while displaying some supernatural vocal fireworks. Ericlea (Laura Pudwell), in an anguished and dramatically effective soliloquy, asks herself whether she should break her promise to keep hidden the identity of the stranger in beggar’s rags. Finally, Ulisse appears to Penelope in his own shape, only to be rejected by her as a sorcerer. When Ericlea tells of identifying him from an old scar, she begins to soften. In his final plea, Ulisse describes the bed cover that Penelope herself had embroidered with the image of the chaste Diana; only he has seen it. Only then does she relent, breaking into song in triple meter and becoming progressively more expressive in tone and gesture. “Illustratevi o Cieli” (Shine, O Heavens) is her first real aria, followed by their first and only duet. Surely one of the most moving scenes in all opera.
Underpinning it all was the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble, including five strings led by concertmaster Robert Mealy, and a continuo group consisting of two chitarroni, Baroque guitar, Baroque harp, two harpsichords and virginal, two viole da gamba, and a lirone, led by musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. With a cast of outstanding singer-actors filling both major and minor roles, vibrant sets, costumes, and lighting, wonderfully coherent staging, and expert instrumental accompaniment, it is hard to single out any one participant as exceptional. This was no fussily antique revival, but a thoroughly enjoyable performance to be savored on its own merits.