Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
Rachid ben Abdelstam (L'Humana Fragilitŕ), Paul-Henry Vila (Tempo/Nettuno), Katalin Károlyi (Fortuna/Melanto), Olga Pitarch (Amore/Minerva), Marijana Mijanovic (Penelope), Genevičve (Ericlea), Zachary Stains (Eurimaco), Eric Raffard (Giove), Kresimir Spicer (Ulisse), Joseph Cornwell (Eumete), Robert Burt (Iro), Cyril Auvity (Telemaco), Bertrand Bontoux (Antinoo), Andreas Gisler (Anfinomo), Christophe Laporter (Pinsandro/Phaeacian sailor), Rebecca Ockenden (Giuonone), Mario Soares Holanda, Bertrand Chuberre (Phaeacian sailors)
William Christie (musical director)
Soloists of the Académie européenne de musique d'Aix-en-Provence and of Les Arts Florissants
Les Arts Florissants' production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, directed by Adrian Noble, originated at the Aix Festival in July 2000 and is currently touring Europe. This concert performance by the same forces in the Barbican Theatre obviously benefited in narrative clarity and characterization from the work done on the staging.
And the story is one worth telling. The Iliad is essentially a fantasia on the theme of teenage arrogance confronted with mortality. It works best as drama when marginal figures like Priam, Hecuba are given subjectivity to provide a new angle on the pain. The Odyssey in contrast not only comes with a full cast of real adult characters, plus the adolescent but growing Telemachus; it also has a proper story. Although the outcome is as fixed as Penelope's bed, we can enjoy the way that the deceits and diversions en route cast light on the outcome: Odysseus can't be sure he's home until he finds himself in a Troy-like situation, having to fight for his wife; and Penelope can't be sure that he's the same person once he has killed so many men so violently, until he reminds her of their marriage bed. On the way, Telemachus grows up (helped by a desirable older woman) and the decrepit swineherd Eumaeus gains dignity for his loyalty and generosity, both reproducing aspects of Odysseus' moral journey.
Monteverdi's treatment, to a libretto by the aristocrat Giacomo Badoardo (who seems to have read his source more closely than most professional librettists), is instantly accessible to a modern audience, quite close to a three-hour epic movie with neatly contrasted shortish scenes that interweave multiple plots -- Odysseus' homecoming, Penelope's resistance to the suitors, Telemachus' coming of age and a cheerful romance between Melanto and Eurymachus completely unrelated to the duplicitous liaison in Homer -- until the extended violent set piece of the slaughter of the suitors at the end of act two, followed by an increasingly personal focus on Penelope's recognition of her husband. The tone is close to Shakespearean, a deft and utterly human union of rhetoric, humour and emotion that perhaps depends on a collaborative development in performance. But if Monteverdi is as much a brand as an auteur in his two surviving late operas, which are full of recycled material, there is a sureness in the balance that suggests an authorial control which survives the feather-light charm and bravura of Les Arts Florissants' performance.
The small orchestra played on stage behind the singers and was an inseparable part of the performance, not only because they were at times included in the action, for example, in Iro's Wimpy-like appeals for help after the slaughter of the suitors. William Christie directed, usually imperceptibly, from one of the harpsichords. While there was no doubt that he was in control, the other players always seemed to be contributing as individuals.
The singers were a strikingly diverse lot, in national origin, professional and musical background, vocal style and just about every other imaginable respect, which was quite appropriate for a work whose background is in a world tour of human natures and cultures, and again the sense that they were also being themselves in some sense added to the depth of the performances. Marijana Mijanovic sang with steely focus and beautiful tone as Penelope, matched by her austere personal grace that melted very movingly in her final aria of joy after long pain. Katalin Károlyi was a sexy, slightly batty, Melanto, with a slight but attractive edge to her voice, well matched with Zachary Stains as her Eurimaco. Olga Pitarch was almost spooky in her cool exuberance as Amore and Minvera-as-shepherd-boy, and even cooler as Minerva undisguised.
Kresimir Spicer was a bluff Ulisse, a plausible old sailor, human but always rock solid, in person and vocally. His reaction when Telemaco greeted Eumete and completely ignored him in his disguise as an old beggar was for a moment heartbreaking. Cyril Auvity was a charming, lyrical Telemaco. Joseph Cornwell was thoroughly Shakespearean as Eumete, and another English tenor, Robert Burt, was utterly theatrical as the parasite Iro. Their row in act one was a minor comic masterpiece.