Monteverdi’s music is enjoying a year of celebration – he was born 450 years ago. As part of the celebration, Sir John Eliot Gardiner has developed concert productions of the three great Monteverdi operas and, working with a group of wonderful singers, the Monteverdi Choir, and with the English Baroque soloists, is taking them around Europe. Performances in Venice, Leipzig, and Salzburg are planned. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse arrived at the Colston Hall in Bristol on 12 April and it proved to be a night to savour.
The story is drawn from the last section of Homer’s Odyssey and tells of Ulisse’s return to Ithaca after ten years of wandering. He disguises himself as a beggar and, with the help of his son Telemaco and the herdsman Eumete, he outwits and slaughters the suitors who have been pestering his faithful wife, Penelope. She, however, cannot see through his disguise and only in the final moments of the opera realises that this man truly is the husband she has waited for all these years.
Semi-staged concert performances offer a minefield of problems for the creators. Where to put the orchestra? What costumes to provide for the principals? How to handle the big dramatic moments? Gardiner, working with director Elsa Rooke, comes up with excellent answers for all these questions. The orchestra is placed across the stage and the singers move and sing amongst and behind them – even occasionally coming down through the audience from the back of the auditorium. The effect is to draw us into the heart of the story telling. And the music is sublime. This is very early opera – first performed at the Venice carnival in 1640 – and the musical language is too formal for some. In the hands of the immensely expert Gardiner, in this performance after just a few bars it sounds perfectly recognisable and it conveys not just the beauty of Monteverdi’s music but also the drama of the homecoming of the wanderer and the danger that he will be denied his reunion despite all his suffering. It feels totally modern.
The performances are all fine, some are superb. Baritone Furio Zanasi is brilliant as Ulisse, his seemingly effortless singing oozing style – and, as an actor, his silent presence sometimes dominates the stage. French mezzo Lucile Richardot, singing Penelope, has voice that at first sounds strange to ears used to romantic Italian opera – but it is the sort of voice that Gardiner favours for baroque opera and again after my first moments of doubt she is totally convincing. In the scenes where she fends off her suitors and in the final scene, where she realises that the man before her truly is Ulisse, she is simply superb. There are many other outstanding performances – Hana Blazikova as Minerva, the goddess who assists Ulisse, has lovely soprano voice and handles Monteverdi’s complex lines with panache and tenor Robert Burt finds real humour in the small comic role of Iro.
This is a substantial work lasting more than three and a half hours. Gardiner, whose rapport with the excellent English Baroque Soloists is so obvious, ensures that the sound is beautiful, the pace is varied and the overall shape of the drama shines through the evening. It is sad that there will not be more chances to see this production – performances in Edinburgh are the only other UK dates planned. It is a stunning proof that with the right performers even the earliest opera can speak to a modern audience.