From La Venexiana under their dynamic director, Claudio Cavina, one expects great things. Of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria one expects depth, beauty, strength and an individualistic development of the new style of opera developed earlier in his career by Monteverdi. Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria is the last but one of Monteverdi's surviving operas. With a libretto by Giacomo Badoaro, the opera was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1639/40 carnival season. By that time, the grandiose and sumptuous productions of his stage works to which Monteverdi had become used were things of the past. Indeed, Monteverdi ended up meeting some of the expenses for Ulisse himself despite the fervor in the city for such music at the time.
If there are virtues to be celebrated in Ulisse, they are those of constancy and belief in the rightness of fidelity – as Ulysses returns home to find Penelope beset by suitors. So perhaps to make exploration (and implicit advocacy of) these virtues as transparent and telling as possible it's as well that the work's scale is almost intimate. Thus the insistence on resolution and self-realization of the two main characters tenor, Anizio Zorzi Giustiniani, and mezzo, Josà Maria Lo Monaco, are never obfuscated or overshadowed by spectacle or show. Raw emotions are in dialog. At the same time, fidelity cannot be glossed over as just another value. The interpretation of the music has to have something elevating. Cavina's does.
At the same time, this performance has nothing of the ponderous about it; no self-conscious Angst, which latter-day "modernizers" of the Baroque are all too fond of. Cavina's is a wholly classical conception, and one with much humanity. Typical is Luca Dordolo's (tenor) Irus "crying" at the start of Act III [CD.3 tr.3]. There is pathos, there is acting (pathetic self-pity). But it flows delicately into the real lyricism and syncopated movement forward that are among Monteverdi's hallmarks. This is not an isolated example. Listen to almost any of the interactions between the principals (especially the men with women) and you will hear a warmth, an engagement which really bring the work to life.
Life is indeed just what we get from this compelling performance. Its studio recording was mounted as a "chamber" opera. Our attention is constantly (re)directed to the interaction between and thoughts and emotions of the singers. There is nevertheless enough latitude and spontaneity, sheer presence and projection on the singers' parts for dryness and formality never to lead to the hothouse atmosphere into which such almost "analytical" singing could slide. Very little is declaimed, for instance. Even the potentially most rhetorical moments, such as Lieto cammino, Minerva's exhortation to Telemachus not to forget her imperative [CD.2 tr.1], are simply exposed without spurious emotional tint or decoration.
For some, this may give Cavina's conception of the opera an air of roughness; particularly if the listener is aware chiefly of Poppea and/or Orfeo. The latter two are much more spectacular, extrovert and conventionally operatic. Indeed, Ulisse is described in the excellent booklet that comes with these three CDs as the "Cinderella of Monteverdi's operas". It's likely that Monteverdi wasn't the only composer to have worked on Ulisse. Cavina is credited with work on the final score for this production, whose original survives in only one copy, in Vienna. This too may account for the spontaneity. It's not that the production is "unpolished". But it certainly has a feel of not being not over-practiced. Arias develop naturally. Dialogs seem "off the cuff" – in some ways as characters engaged in a crisis do come together, meet, reflect and move on, their minds still occupied.
The quality of (solo) singing is correspondingly high. No-one stands out as exceptional. But this is not what's wanted. Psychological insight is more important that rhetoric. In addition to the heroic characters, others play a more archetypical role such as the glutton, Irus. And every singer is clearly comfortable with the idioms which allow parody, irony and heroism to work. At first, then, you may find listening to this version of Ulisse a little ragged at the edges. The more you let its logic work on you, let yourself be convinced by Cavina's emphasis on serving up characters' motives through singing and interaction rather than flourish and gesture, the more impressed you'll be with this set from Glossa. Especially since such an approach seems likely to be exactly why Monteverdi wrote Ulisse as he did.
The acoustic of this recording matches very well the conception of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria described here. It is immediate and close with a touch of atmosphere – audible pauses and silences that heighten anticipation, for example. There are few stage effects… but be prepared for a very realistic and striking thunder clap in Act II's third scene [CD.2 tr.5]. The sonic balance between the small (dozen strong) yet colorful instrumental ensemble (which is mostly strings, of course) and singers (with a marked predominance of tenors) is good. It promotes the harmonic and the consonant in ways that suggest an intensity as the characters do indeed resolve the situation which Ulysses finds on his return. There are other recordings of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria just as deserving of your attention as this one. Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi 5901427 is one of several which get plaudits. But for a performance that somehow gets right to the center of seventeenth century Venetian practice while at the same time pressing its conventions into the service of exploring very real and more durable human matters, now Cavina's can be recommended too.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.