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Boston Baroque - Monteverdi: Ulisse - Voix des Arts


25 May 2015
Voix des Arts
Joseph Newsome

Whether literal or figurative, homeward journeys have since the evolution of artistic endeavors as a mode of expression been a prevalent theme in art, music, literature, and cinema. Separation and the effort of one person to be reunited with another are bound with the threads of virtually every human emotion, and the necessity of companionship is perhaps man's most basic psychological need. Nowhere is this theme more eloquently and insightfully explored than in Homer's Odyssey, the epic but timelessly simple tale of a man's exacting labor to return home to his wife. Having braved the horrors of war, that man endures obstacles even more terrible that complicate his task. As Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night's Dream, ‘the course of true love never did run smooth,' nor are the roads that restore lovers to one another seamlessly paved. Thus is Odysseus, Homer's hero, thwarted by both gods and mortals in his prolonged struggle to return from the ruins to Troy to his native Ithaca and the arms of his wife Penelope. A victim in part of his own pride, Odysseus manfully confronts Calypso, Charybdis, and Circe, but putting his own house in order is an undertaking that nearly overwhelms him. Scholars debate precisely who wrote The Odysseyand when, but, like arguments about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, this misses the point, which is that the work's enduring cultural significance is derived from the universality of its subject. Neither Claudio Monteverdi nor his Venetian audience in the 1639 - 1640 Carnevale season, when his opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria was first performed, had greater personal experience with fallen civilizations, seductive nymphs, and vengeful gods than a listener in 2015, but few people who have heard Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in the ?375 years since its première have never said goodbye to a loved one, anxiously awaited someone's return, or been plagued with doubts and fears about what the future holds. Whether he was a man, a persona, or merely the invention of a literary tradition, Homer captured the strife of separated spouses in The Odyssey with rare perceptiveness, and Monteverdi incisively translated their emotions into the exalted language of music in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.

Employing a new performing edition of the score prepared by Martin Pearlman, who also conducts this performance, Boston Baroque's and Linn Records' recording of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is a tantalizing reevaluation of an opera that is, depending upon one's perspective, either a great early masterpiece of opera or a dull piece of disputed authorship. Scholarship in the past quarter-century has disavowed the formerly oft-repeated allegation that Il ritorno is not truly the work of Monteverdi. Like the Shakespearean libretti that Boito wrote for the aged Verdi, Giacomo Badoaro's libretto for Il ritorno was likely devised as bait to lure Monteverdi, past the age of seventy and settled in Venice to supervise the composition and performance of sacred music at the Basilica di San Marco, back into the theatre. Thankfully, the ruse was successful. In previous decades, the dissimilarities between Il ritorno and Monteverdi's more-frequently-performed L'incoronazione di Poppea, his latest surviving opera, were cited as evidence supporting the argument against the veracity of the attribution of the earlier opera to Monteverdi, but it now seems more likely that a genius like Monteverdi merely responded to very different dramas with markedly contrasting compositional idioms in the manner of Verdi's varied sonic landscapes for the Spain of Don Carlos, the Egypt of Aida, and the England of Falstaff. With an incomplete manuscript that, true to Seventeenth-Century fashion, leaves many questions unanswered, Il ritorno is a challenge to any conductor, and Pearlman's new edition does not solve all of the opera's riddles. Taking a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road approach that takes surviving source materials at face value, Pearlman's work yields a performing edition that maintains the lean textures of the score but also lends an understated modernity to the opera, revealing that even in 1640 the roots of the music of Stravinsky and Messiaen were growing. Pearlman occasionally seems to have fallen victim to the fear of putting too great a personal ‘stamp' on his edition of Il ritorno, and this leaves passages sounding inert: Benjamin Britten's adaptations of music by Purcell are radical by comparison but exemplify one artist's refinement of another's efforts. Pearlman is to be applauded for eschewing the popular practice of interpolating music and text from other sources to replace scenes missing from the libretto and manuscript score: Il ritorno functions handily enough without them. Boston Baroque's team of virtuosi execute their parts with considerable aplomb.

First encountered as L'humana fragilità, Il tempo, La fortuna, and Amore in the opera's Prologue, countertenor Christopher Lowrey, bass João Fernandes, and sopranos Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Sara Heaton launch the performance with attractive, mostly stylish singing. Lowrey's 'Mortal cosa son io, fattura humana' is phrased with real distinction, and his lovely timbre and confident manner are evident when he returns later in the opera as a Phaeacian sailor and a member of the Coro marittimo. Fernandes makes a somewhat blunt impression in Tempo's ‘Salvo è niente dal mio dente' but is heard to greater advantage as Nettuno in the opera proper. In the fifth scene of Act One, his voicing of ‘Superbo è l'huom ed è del suo peccato cagion, benchè lontana' is effective, only the lowest notes lacking authority, and his stately delivery of ‘Son ben quest'onde frigide' in the seventh scene of Act Three holds its own against Giove's and Giunone's utterances. Singing Fortuna's ‘Mia vita son voglie, le gioie, le doglie' charmingly, Tengblad radiates nobility in Giunone's ‘Gran Giove, alma de' Dei, Dio delle menti, mente dell' universo' in the seventh scene of Act Three. Heaton makes Amore's ‘Dio de' Dei feritor mi dice il mondo Amor' a powerful statement, and her sweet timbre is a notable asset in the Coro in cielo.

As Penelope's petulant suitors, the Mnesteres, tenors Jonas Budris and Owen McIntosh as Anfinomo and Pisandro and bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas as Antinoo are appropriately exasperating but unfailingly musical. Thomas's gruff presence and bitingly masculine voice are deployed with wit in Antinoo's ‘Sono l'altre Regine coronate di servi e tu d'amanti' in the fifth scene of Act Two, and he makes ‘Compagni, udiste: il vostro vicin rischio mortale vi chiama a grandie risolute imprese' in the same act's eighth scene a compelling statement of the character's slimy credo. It is a testament to the potency of Thomas's performance that the listener wants to string the legendary bow and eliminate Antinoo even before Ulisse can do it. McIntosh also sings Giove, in whose ‘Gran Dio de' salsi flutti' in the fifth scene of Act One he is the very model of divine authority. He interacts with Tengblad's Giunone splendidly in the seventh scene of Act Three, evincing touching sincerity in his voicing of ‘Per me non avrà mai vota preghiera Giuno.'

Mezzo-soprano Krista River impersonates Penelope's aged nurse Ericlea with an ideal blend of authentic Seventeenth-Century broad comedy and open-hearted honesty, all while singing capably and often beautifully. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims devotes a wealth of imagination to her performance as Penelope's young maidservant Melanto, delivering her lines in the second scene of Act One, including the delightful ‘Duri e penosi son gli amorosi fieri desir,' with disarming freshness of tone and emotional directness. Later, in the act's tenth scene, Nims's Melanto sings ‘Cara amata Regina, avveduta e prudente per tuo sol danno sei' to her mistress with incredible poise, and in the eighth scene of Act Three she delivers ‘Ericlea, che vuoi far, vuoi tacer or parlar?' with accents of profound uncertainty. As Melanto's doting lover Eurimaco, tenor Daniel Shirley is endearing, his beguiling singing of ‘Bella Melanto mia, graziosa Melanto, il tuo canto è un incanto, il tuo volto è magia' cajoling the listener as much as Melanto.

Tenor Daniel Auchincloss is enchanting as the faithful swineherd Eumete, his aristocratic phrasing of ‘Oh come mal si salva un Regio amante da sventure e da mali' in the eleventh scene of Act One belying the character's humble state. In the subsequent scene, Auchincloss erases any doubts about the pervasiveness of Eumete's distaste for Iro, his singing of ‘Iro, gran mangiatore, Iro, divoratore, Iro, loquace! Mio pace non perturbar. Corri a mangiar! a crepar!' seething with loathing. Then, in the tenth scene of Act Two, he voices ‘Io vidi, o pellegrin, de' Proci amanti l'ardir infermarsi' with extraordinary grace, and ‘Forza d'occulto affetto raddolcisce il tuo petto' in the fourth scene of Act Three receives from Auchincloss a performance of consummate artistry. The voice is a plangent instrument, used by the singer in this performance to portray a character whose social status does not inhibit his loyalty, integrity, and generosity of spirit. As the parasitic Iro, tenor Marc Molomot throws himself into the part with abandon, his taunting of Eumete in the twelfth scene of Act One epitomized by his disdainfully ironic articulation of ‘Pastor d'armenti può prati e boschi lodar.' It is to Iro that Monteverdi entrusted the scene that opens Act Three, ‘O dolor, o martir che l'alma attrista,' begun by an eight-bar cry of woe that has become one of the most famous passages in Seventeenth-Century opera. Molomot's comically impassioned delivery, perhaps ideal for a staged performance of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, is over the top in the context of a studio recording. The tenor is an intelligent, thoroughly stylish singer whose every vocal gesture is founded upon respect for the music, but in this instance simply singing the notes would have been preferable.

Leah Wool's sumptuous mezzo-soprano voice glows in Monteverdi's music for Minerva, whose benevolent omniscience guides Ulisse's progress along the twisting path from the carnage of Troy to his wife's arms. In the eighth scene of Act One, Wool voices Minerva's counsel to Ulisse, ‘Cara a lieta gioventù che disprezza empio desir,' with keen sagacity and prepossessing tone, and her singing of ‘Tu d'Aretusa al fonte intanto vanne ove il pastor Eumete, tuo fido antico servo' in the ninth scene is wonderfully unaffected. Again advising the frustrated Ulisse in the ninth scene of Act Two, Wool's Minerva phrases ‘O coraggioso Ulisse, io farò che proponga la tua casta consorte giuoco' with bolstering confidence. In the sixth and ninth scenes of Act Three, she makes vigorous impressions with her singing of ‘Fiamma è l'ira, o gran Dea, foco è lo sdegno' and ‘Ogni nostra ragion sen porta il vento' without distorting the vocal lines or her own sophisticated artistry.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan?, one of America's most versatile and reliably stimulating singers, finds in Telemaco a rôle tailor-made for his effortlessly-produced voice. In the scene that opens Act Two, he shapes ‘Lieto cammino, dolce viaggio, passa il carro divino come che fosse un raggio' with the weariness of a young man pushed to his breaking point by circumstances beyond his control. The expressivity of his increasingly confident interjections in the third scene heightens the impact of the music, his account of ‘Che veggio, ohimè, che miro?' establishing the atmosphere of wonder for Telemaco's recognition of and reunion with his father. Returning to his mother's court in the eleventh scene, the dutiful son relays to Penelope a portion of the saga of his search for Ulisse. Sheehan's mellifluous singing of ‘Del mio lungo viaggio i torti errori già vi narrai, Regina' is superb. Throughout the performance, this valuable singer molds a portrayal of Telemaco that is notable for meeting all of Monteverdi's demands with imperturbable vocal and dramatic charisma.

American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera succeeds in fashioning an impersonation of the forbearing Penelope that, in terms of sensitivity, profundity, and vocal freedom, can be ranked alongside the unforgettable portrayal by her countrywoman Frederica von Stade on the outmoded recording conducted by Raymond Leppard. Penelope opens the opera proper with her riveting lament ‘Di misera Regina non terminati mai dolenti affani,' which Rivera makes all the more moving by refraining from over-emoting. The delicacy with which she sings the dramatically intense plaint ‘Deh torna Ulisse, Penelope t'aspetta' is exquisite, the satiny texture of the voice caressing the music but maintaining a high level of emotional animation. Her elocutions of ‘Torna il tranquillo il mare' and ‘L'huomo qua giù ch'è vivo' are subtly differentiated but united by the singer's depiction of Penelope's ardent longing for her husband's return. In the fifth scene of Act Two, in which Penelope confronts her lewd suitors, Rivera reveals the character's resilience with her telling communication of a single line, ‘Non voglio amar, non voglio!' The breadth of her connection with her rôle is confirmed in the eleventh scene of Act Two, when, as Penelope converses with Telemaco, she sings ‘Beltà troppo funesta, ardor iniquo di rimembranze indegno' with very personal eloquence. Forced to circumspection by the fate to which she has been subjected, Penelope is slow to accept that the man who appears before her in Act Three truly is Ulisse, but when she allows herself to believe what has for so long seemed impossible Rivera's voice takes on a blithe warmth. Penelope's despair can too easily seem like exhausting self-pity, but Rivera infuses her portrait of the steadfast queen with flashes of a vibrant personality that render the character not only credible but atypically engaging.

Singing the title rôle, Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães is a revelation. Compared with several of the singers who have recorded Ulisse, especially the baritones, Guimarães's voice is light for the music, but the dividends paid by his artistic investment enrich the performance considerably. Guimarães makes a stirring impression in the seventh scene of Act One, the wonderment that he evokes in ‘Dormo ancora o son desto?' persisting in the? eighth scene with Minerva, in which he sings ‘Sempre l'human bisogno il ciel soccorre' with singularity of purpose and handsomely-shaded tone. In the ninth scene, his iron-willed ‘O fortunato Ulisse!' is an exuberant moment. Then, in the ninth scene of Act Two, this Ulisse responds to Minerva's intervention with a heady account of ‘Perir non può chi tien per scorta il cielo.' Guimarães's singing surges with exhilarating verve in the scene in which Ulisse at last vanquishes and slaughters Penelope's impudent suitors. In the opera's final scene, as Ulisse and Penelope are finally fully restored to one another, Guimarães joins Rivera in an erotically-charged performance of ‘Non si rammenti più de' tormenti'-unlike ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo' in L'incoronazione di Poppea, a sensual lovers' duet that Monteverdi almost surely composed himself. Ulisse has fared well on recordings, amassing fine performances from burly ‘modern' voices as well as Early Music specialists, but Guimarães sets new standards of technical achievement and the simple but impalpable art of bel canto.

The prospect of performing Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, whether on stage or in studio, presents an array of questions. Composers and conductors as diverse as Vincent d'Indy, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Luigi Dallapiccola, Ernst Krenek, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Hans Werner Henze have offered answers to these questions, and with this recording Martin Pearlman offers his own solutions to some of the problems left by Monteverdi's manuscript and surviving materials from the Seventeenth Century. A definitive Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is an evasive creature, but the one heard on these expertly-recorded discs is an agreeable, often enjoyable manifestation of Monteverdi's great genius. The grandeur of this Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is in the casting, however: Fernando Guimarães is an Ulisse whose homecoming is genuinely deserved, and Jennifer Rivera and Aaron Sheehan are a Penelope and Telemaco whose constancy merits a happy ending.


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