Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 16th of August 2009 at 3 - 6 pm
MONTEVERDI: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria,
an opera in a prologue and three acts
Human Frailty................ Terry Way
Time, Neptune.............. Luigi Da Donato
Fortune......................... Hanna Bayodi-Hirt
Cupid, Minerva............. Claire Debono
Penelope....................... Christine Rice
Ericlea........................... Marina Rodríguez-Cusí
Eurimaco, Jupiter........... Ed Lyon
Ulysses......................... Kobie van Rensburg
Eumaeus....................... Joseph Cornwell
Irus............................... Robert Burt
Telemachus................... Cyril Auvity
Antinous........................ Humberto Chiummo
Peisander...................... Xavier Sabata
Amphinomus................. Juan Sancho
Juno.............................. Sonya Yoncheva
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
(recorded in the Teatro Real, Madrid by Spanish Radio)
LIBRETTO (Italian + Spanish)
Radio New Zealand is giving Ulysses (real name Odysseus) another operatic homecoming (last occasion was in July 2007 in Wales), this time his rain will fall in Spain (plainly not on the Main), a rain of arrows from the bow that none of the suitors could string, those pesky potentates who have been pestering his Fair Lady during his long absence from his homeland, Ithaka (somewhere in Greece). He had been to the Trojan war to rescue Helen from Paris, and got lost (in a great variety of locations) on his way home, as recorded or recounted by Homer in The Odyssey. He met a few saucy women in his voyages, notably Circe who turned her visitors into pigs.
The patience of Penelope, slaving over her hot embroidery, is legendary (so is the whole tale). For twenty years she did not receive a Valentine greeting, or a philia-epistle (that's Greek for billet doux in the mail), or even a picture postcard [Wish you were here on the beach at Troy; Having a lovely time on Circe's pig-farm; We got a bullseye on the Cyclops]. When her husband finally did arrive she was very suspicious about his identity, and the only way he could get back into her bed was by describing the silk coverlet on it, depicting Artemis (Diana the Divine Huntress).
The opera is by Claudio Monteverdi, but there is only one manuscript available, and academic doubts have been raised (needlessly) about its authorship; it belongs alongside his Poppea and his Orfeo.
The full title of Claudio Monteverdi's opera is: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland). The story starts when Ulysses finally reaches Ithaka (his homeland in Greece), after fighting for many years at Troy (the subject of The Iliad of Homer) and then wandering over the sea for many more (involuntarily, as narrated in The Odyssey). In the mean time, his faithful wife Penelope has been fighting off a multitude of suitors.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) established opera as an art form. His first masterpiece was Orpheus (L'Orfeo) (1607); Ulysses was composed late in his life (1640). The author of the text was a Venetian nobleman named Giacomo Badoaro, who described himself as a dilettante, writing for pleasure not from necessity (he certainly won't be earning any royalties from this production of it in Spain). The first performance was in Venice in 1641.
It has a prologue and some 20 scenes, divided into 5 (or 3) acts. The selection I have described below totals 16 (my own numbering). The recording I have, on three black discs (Vox), omits the prologue, and you can not predict what various productions will do in subtracting scenes.
Monteverdi's operas usually open with a prologue, featuring gods or personifications of abstract nouns, such as Fortune and Virtue in Poppea, and Music in Orfeo; here it is Time, Love, and Fortune, confronting Human Frailty, played by a naked woman in Peter Hall's production at Glyndebourne in 1972 and 1979.
 The palace
Penelope is in her royal palace (remember, she is a queen) with Eurykleia/Ericlea, Ulysses's old nurse; Penelope is pining; she misses Ulysses. Where's that husband of mine? He's never home. Will he no come back again? Twenty years have passed since the troubles began (the 'rape' or abduction of Helen by Paris of Troy, alias Alexander of Ilias). It was right that the adulterer was punished and his city burned, but now your chaste wife is abandoned amongst hostile rivals, with her honour in jeopardy, and in fear of death. Return, oh return, return Ulysses/ Odysseus.
There is a scene (available in the score) in which Melanto (Penelope's maid) and Eurymachus/ Eurimaco sing of their love. And the libretto has a chorus of nereids and sirens, which is not found in the musical score. Another scene shows Ulisse being deposited on the shore. So, counting the prologue, there are five scenes preceding the one I have numbered as Two.
 The seashore
Neptune and Jupiter (Jove, Zeus) are in conversation about human hubris, and the Phaeacians are singled out for acting against Neptune's divine decree, by delivering Ulysses to his homeland, Ithaka. Jove gives Neptune permisson to punish them, and teach them that no human undertaking which has the gods opposed to it has a fortunate outcome.
 The coast
A seafarer's chorus. Neptune wreaks his vengeance by turning their ship into rock.
 The shore
Ulysses is stranded on the beach, and when he wakes up he does not know what country he is in (he is really out of touch, not recognizing his own domain). He blames himself for his misfortunes, but he also thinks the gods are ruthless and harsh. He curses the Phaeacians (unfairly!) for dumping him on an unknown shore.
 The shore
Minerva (Athena, actually) arrives [in her skymobile at Glyndebourne], disguised as a young shepherd, extolling the virtues and joys of youth. Quoth Ulysses: Charming young shepherd, give advice and assistance to a lost wanderer, and tell me please the name of this shore and this port. Even when she tells him he is in Ithaka he babbles on about being a fugitive hounded by hostile fate thrust onto this shore. Minerva says he is speaking in a dream, and tells him who she is and offers him her advice. He is to disguise himself as an old man, and go to his palace to confront the shameless suitors, and observe the unshaken constancy of his pure Penelope. Interjection: O fortunate Ulysses, he exclaims. Minerva has had her vengeance on Troy, and now wishes to reinstate Ulysses in his own country. (He takes on the role of a beggar, with a bowl.) He must go to the fountain of Arethusa, where Eumaeus (Eumete, his faithful old servant) is tending his flock. She will transport his son Telemachus (Telemaco) from Sparta, and meet him at the fountain. Ulysses now expands his 'O fortunate Ulysses' line: Forget your grief, your past misfortune; relish the taste of life, which brings both delight and grief, both peace and war; there is no longer despair for mortals on earth.
 The palace
Penelope is with Melanto her maid. (For twenty years she did not receive a Valentine card, or even a post-card ['Wish you were here on the beach at Troy', or 'Having a lovely time at Circe's pig-farm'] but she remained completely faithful to him.) Melanto tries to persuade Penelope to accept one of the suitors, since Ulysses must be dead. Pnot on your pnelly, Penelope retorts. Actually, she is feeling painfully disillusioned about love, and thinking Ulysses could be like Jason and Theseus, both of whom abandoned their lovers (Medea and Ariadne respectively, but not at all respectfully).
 A grove
Eumaeus/Eumete soliloquizes on the pastoral life: the herdsman with his staff has a better time in the woodlands and meadows than the king with his sceptre, dressed in silk but weighed down with worries. Now a comic interlude. The stuttering Irus/Iro (a glutton) mocks him: only the beasts can eat the grass that Eumete delights in, but he eats the animals at royal tables. Eumete tells him to go away and stuff himself. At this point Eumete starts pondering over the fate of Ulysses: perhaps the gods may not have wanted Troy to be destroyed, and he has become their victim (true enough). Ulysses, in his beggar's disguise, overhears this soliloquy, and speaks enigmatically (or cunningly): If you desire his return, then give shelter to this old beggar you see before you. Eumaeus is delighted, but apparently does not recognize him.
 The countryside
(Act Two begins here in some versions)
Telemaco and Minerva/Athene have travelled in her celestial chariot to Ithaka. Eumaeus welcomes him home. Eumaeus is sent to announce to the Queen that Telemaco has returned. Then Ulysses reveals himself (in all his glory) to his son, and eventually sends him to be reunited with his mother Queen Penelope.
 The palace
Melanto tells her lover Eurimachus that Penelope is wallowing in sadness; but they both take pleasure in each other's company (once again, if their earlier love-scene has been included).
 The palace
(Act Two now begins, if you like)
Penelope is being wooed (as usual) by the suitors (notably Antinous, Amphinomous, Peisander); she is still rejecting love. Feasting and dancing continue (here eight 'Moors' are anachronistically programmed to perform a Greek dance and sing, recommending that ladies should love while April lasts). Enter Eumaeus with his glad tidings: Telemaco is back, and Ulysses is alive. Penelope is not sure how to react: it is certainly a change of fortune, but for good or ill? This is a worry, the three suitors say; we had better shower our gifts on her now, and assail her heart with gold-tipped arrows of love. But Telemaco must be killed before Ulysses arrives. Thereupon an eagle appears and causes consternation. Eurimachus sees it as as an oracle from Jupiter / Zeus. The suitors decide there is no time to lose; they must soften Penelope's heart before her son arrives.
 A grove
Ulysses is confident of divine protection. Minerva/Athena tells him that she will inspire Penelope to set up a game, which will ultimately lead to the downfall of the suitors: a contest to string the bow of Ulysses. Eumaeus reports to Ulysses: the suitors were transfixed with terror when they heard the name of Ulysses. The hero laughs, and looks forward to his onslaught against them.
 The palace
Telemaco recounts his adventures to Penelope. He has met Helen, and gazed deep into her eyes, and she is truly beautiful, so Paris could not be blamed for falling for her (yes, he fell in battle on her account). Penelope does not want to hear about Helen, and rebukes her son (but Janet Baker sings beautifully). Telemaco says Helen is indeed a witch, and she has predicted the return of Ulysses to restore his kingdom.
The three kings, the most prominent of the suitors wooing Penelope, will presently present their presents: gold, 'frank incense', and a mur-mur of their undying love.
 The palace
Eumaeus brings Ulysses (with his begging bowl) into the hall. Antinous reviles him for introducing a pestiferous beggar into their company. Eumaeus retorts that Fortune has led the man to the home of Ulysses. Antinous orders them both to get out of his noble sight. Irus stutteringly seconds this motion (he is worrying that they will eat his share of the dinner). Ulysses stands up to the corpulent upstart, but Irus threatens to pull the beggar's whiskers out, one by one. A fight ensues, and the pot-bellied knave accepts defeat (Son vinto, ohimè). Antinous asks the beggar to pardon his opponent, and calls Irus a great eater but a poor fighter. Penelope welcomes the valiant mendicant.
Now the three kings present their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (well, not quite, but very close). According to the libretto, Peisander (Pisandro) goes first, proffering a royal crown and his heart; Amphinomous (Anfinomo) offers royal robes; Antinous (Antinoo) tries to bid higher, not treating her as a queen but worshipping her as a goddess, and so he gives gold and 'frank incense' (his own sighs are incense for her, and his desires are sacrificial victims for her).
[Note that there is confusion here, between the text and the music: Antinoo is a bass, and the other two are a tenor (Pisandro) and a counter-tenor (Anfinomo); but in the score the order of the suitors is counter-tenor followed by tenor and bass; so, we will watch to see whether Peisander will be moved to second place in any particular production of the opera. However, in the Glyndebourne version, there is no counter-tenor, male alto, or female alto, but two tenors. Apologies for this musicological interruption; we will now resume our normal programme.]
Penelope graciously accepts the gifts, but sets up a contest: whoever can string the great bow of Ulysses shall have her and the kingdom. Telemachus cries out for Ulysses himself to come and set things right. Penelope is wondering why she opened her mouth, but rightly divines that the divinities have prompted her. The trio welcome the competition. Penelope offers the bow to Peisander (but maybe Amphinomous will have first turn sometimes). None succeeds, so the old man volunteers, and immediately uses the weapon against the suitors. Power from Minerva's spear and the arrows of Ulysses, and a thunderous war-symphony (sinfonia da guerra), all contribute to wreaking Jove's vengeance on the hapless wooers.
 The palace
This is the beginning of Act 3, or 5, but Irus has a long soliloquy over his lack of sustenance: hunger will drive him to suicide, and his body will 'defamish' his tomb. (This piece is generally omitted, and a second scene, in the desert, with the shades of the suitors and the god Mercury / Hermes, was not even set to music.)
Melanto (Penelope's maid) is astonished to find the suitors slaughtered. Penelope is not certain about what has happened and how she should feel. Eumaeus comes and tells her that the bold and brave beggar is Ulysses. No, you are dreaming, she says, and goes into denial and keeps rejecting his protestations. Telemachos remonstrates with her, to no avail.
 The seashore
An interlude with Minerva, Juno, Jove, Neptune, and a chorus of Gods. Minerva (Athena) is commissioned to prevent any more bloodshed among the Greeks resulting from vendettas over the slaying of the suitors. (This scene can be long or shortened.)
 The palace
Ericlea (can be mezzo soprano [castrato?], or counter-tenor!), the old nurse of Ulysses, knows he has returned but ponders whether she should speak up. Penelope persists in her refusal to believe the truth, as Telemachus and Eumaeus continue their attempts to persuade her. When Ulysses himself appears and presents himself to her she rebuffs him: You are not the man I married. You are not the first deceiver in disguise who has tried to take the kingdom from me. (She is reacting like the modern wartime wives who have to give up their freedom and power when the husbands come marching home?) Ericleia finally intervenes: This is certainly Ulysses, chaste noble lady; I saw the scar of his old boar-gore-wound when he was bathing naked. Penelope's response is that she has to be careful, because her undefiled bed is only for Ulysses. And he gives her a secret sign to prove his true identity: he alone knows that she has a silk coverlet on her bed, woven by her own hands, depicting Diana, and this memory has comforted him in his travels. Aha, at last she recognizes him, and a rapturous love-duet is called for: the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the phoenix has risen from the ashes of Troy; no more torment and sorrow, only gladness and enjoyment, happiness and pleasure.
In the Glyndebourne video recording Janet Baker is radiantly glorious, and Benjamin Luxon is tonally beautiful and not showing the distressing deterioration in his voice that eventually ended his career as a singer.
Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 8th of July 2007 at 3 pmWelsh National Opera Orchestra, Rinaldo Alessandrini
(recorded in the Welsh National Opera House,
Cardiff, 30 September 2006 by BBC)