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Monteverdi's 'Il ritorno
d'Ulisse in patria' -
reviewed by

'... moving drama and notable accomplishment.'

Claudio Monteverdi - Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. © 1998 NPS, 2005 Opus Arte

Much has been dispensed with in this version of Ulysses's homecoming. Inevitably we must do without the Nereids, Sirens and Moors of the libretto, since no music exists for them. More regrettable is the depopulation of Olympus, with Jupiter, Juno and Neptune banished, and the absence of a chorus so that we can only imagine the Phaeacians shantying on board ship and an ensemble of assorted maritime and heavenly denizens approving peace among the gods. If I personally missed most the tailwag of Ulysses's aged dog Argos (Homer loved him, but Monteverdi ignored him), it was a moment to savour when Jupiter's eagle alighted in Amsterdam to disconcert Penelope's suitors. For the rest it must be said that the Dutch producers have preferred for the most part a rock and a hard place to the sumptuous scenic devices of 17th-century Venice.

A scene from the Prologue of 'Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria'. DVD screenshot © 1998 NPS, 2005 Opus Arte
A scene from the Prologue of 'Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria'. DVD screenshot © 1998 NPS, 2005 Opus Arte

A main problem of the opera is the differences between the score (kept in Vienna) and surviving librettos. The music as we have it specifies in the prologue Time, Fortune and Cupid as manipulators of Human Frailty. The texts prefer the more relevant Fate, Prudence and Fortitude, characters Ulysses would readily recognise at the end of his ten years' wandering. Here Frailty is first at the mercy of Time [listen -- 'Mortal cosa son io' (Prologue) -- DVD1 chapter 2, 0:00-1:36]. The musical director, Glen Wilson, explains in his notes to the DVD that he has cut and rearranged much. But the psychological subtlety at the core of the libretto remains, and with it Monteverdi's wonderfully varied response.

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Copyright © 26 October 2005 Robert Anderson, London UK


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