Sunday, June 21, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Ulisse

Caitlin Klinger and Melissa House (Naiadi) and Matthew Brook (Nettuno). Photo: Kathy Wittman
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
Friday, June 12, Boston University Theater. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

At the end of the 1630s Monteverdi was over 70, and it had been nearly a decade since he had composed an opera. But in 1637 the first public opera theater, the Teatro San Cassiano, had opened in Venice. Before this, opera had been almost exclusively a courtly entertainment presented in private palaces to an audience of aristocratic patrons and their invited guests. But after the success of the initial season at the Teatro San Cassiano, other Venetian theaters as well soon began presenting opera productions to paying audiences of aristocrats, tourists, courtesans, gondoliers and servants.

Monteverdi was drawn to these new venues for his work, and the 1639-40 season featured a revival of his 1608 opera Arianna (from which only the famous "Lamento d'Arianna" now survives). And he soon began working on a new opera.

Monteverdi's return to opera was inspired by the story of another unexpected return, derived by librettist Giacomo Badoaro from the second half of Homer's Odyssey: Penelope, the wife of Ulisse (Ulysses), has been waiting for him to return from the Trojan War for 20 years. In the meantime, she is being besieged in her home by wealthy suitors eager to take Ulisse's place. Penelope refuses to consider remarriage, despite having no hope that she will ever see her husband again.

Here is Marijana Mijanovic as Penelope, accompanied by Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie, in the production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640) from the 2002 Aix-en-Provence Festival:

But Penelope is unaware that Ulisse, under the protection of the goddess Minerva, has secretly made it back to Ithaca and, reunited with his son Telemaco (Telemachus) and the loyal shepherd Eumete, has begun to plan how—despite being unarmed and vulnerable—he will regain his home, his wife and his throne.

Public opera represented an enrichment of certain possibilities for Monteverdi, but a diminishment of others. Elaborate stage machinery and spectacular sets were constructed to attract audiences with new visual effects. In Ulisse these included Minerva and Telemaco flying through the clouds, Giove (Jupiter) and Giunone (Juno) descending from the heavens in a machine, Ulisse vanishing (through a trap door) amid smoke and flames, and Nettuno (Neptune) rising from the sea. But to hold costs down, the theaters hired only small orchestras and did not have separate choruses. The score of L'Orfeo, an opera presented privately for the ruling Gonzagas in Mantua, called for more than 30 instruments; the score of Ulisse has only five string parts in addition to a small continuo group.

But in exchange for the rich musical palette of court opera, public opera offered the freedom to depict a wider array of character types. Court opera had an elevated tone and focussed on mythological stories. Public opera also drew on stories from classical literature, but in addition to noble and divine figures the librettist Badoaro included in Ulisse characters who were scurrilous (the drunken, gluttonous Iro), underhanded (the suitors), comic (the aging nurse Ericlea), and amorous (Penelope's handmaiden Melanto).

Mary-Ellen Nesi (Penelope) with Laura Pudwell (Ericlea). Photo: Kathy Wittman
The Boston Early Music Festival production of Ulisse was strongly cast, well-directed and -designed. Mary-Ellen Nesi brought a queenly bearing and powerful emotions to the sorrowing Penelope, while Colin Balzer offered in presence and voice a convincingly heroic Ulisse. Other standouts in an excellent cast included Zachary Wilder's Telemaco, Mireille Asselin's Minerva and Danielle Reutter-Harrah's ardent Melanto.

Gilbert Blin's elegant and versatile set and Anna Watkins' costumes were appropriate to the periods of the opera's composition (the set) and setting (the costumes). But there were some elements that didn't work quite as well: the singers' wigs, intended to evoke the elaborately braided hairstyles of ancient Greece, were a bit too obviously fake, and some of the props were cheap-looking.

Colin Balzer (Ulisse). Photo: Kathy Wittman
And while most of Blin's directorial choices were effective, one was not. The final duet between Penelope and Ulisse, the key moment when she finally opens her heart again to love, was accompanied by a distracting set-change. As Nesi's and Balzer's voices intertwined, clouds descended, the rear wall of the stage disappeared, and the sea was once again revealed. Perhaps this was intended to remind us of the great distances Ulysses has travelled to reach this moment. Or perhaps it was meant to suggest that even as he returns to his longed-for wife and home, Ulysses yearns to voyage again (as in Tennyson's great poem "Ulysses"). However, in my view the set-change would have been more effective had it occurred in the final moments after, rather than pulling focus during, this gorgeous and moving duet.

From the 2002 Aix production, Kresimir Spicer (Ulisse) and Marijana Mijanovic in the final duet, in which Penelope, after 20 years of self-sacrifice and self-denial, finally allows herself to say "yes":

Despite minor misjudgments, the BEMF Ulisse was a wonderful production of an opera that is far too rarely staged. And it would have been our peak experience of the 2015 Festival—except that Sunday's performance of L'incoronazione di Poppea was even better.  

Next time: L'incoronazione di Poppea  
Last time: L'Orfeo

No comments :

Post a Comment