Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria hasn’t proved as popular as his other late work L’incoronazione di Poppea but, given as compelling a performance as it got at the Teatro Real, it’s a bit hard to see why that is. On this 2007 recording we have an elegant and interesting production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, an excellent cast headed by Kobie van Rensburg and Christine Rice and the incomparable William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants. It’s a compelling package.
The story of Ulysses return to Ithaca and his reclaiming of home, heart, sovereignty and wife follows Homer quite closely. There is the obligatory allegorical prologue in which Human Frailty, rather well sung by countertenor Terry Wey, is taunted by Fortune, Time and Love. This introduces us to Pizzi’s stark unit set, here depicting some sort of ship wreck, and the costuming style which clearly differentiates between immortals; stylized, often monochromatic costumes and makeup, and the more naturalistic mortals.
The three acts take us through the well known story. In Act 1, Penelope (Christine Rice) sits at her loom lamenting, supported by her old nurse Ericlea. Her smoky voice might seem too dark for Monteverdi but it perfectly suits the gorgeous music she gets here. There follows a scene in which the maid Melanta (the rather gorgeous Hanna Bayodi-Hirt) is persuaded by her lover Eurimachus (Ed Lyon) to press Penelope to pick one of the suitors. Full marks here to both for singing stylishly while apparently navigating a good chunk of the Kama Sutra. The gods now intervene and various spats between Neptune and Jupiter (accompanied by a real eagle) and the appearance of Minerva lead to Ulysses presenting himself to the shepherd Eumaeus disguised as an old beggar and prophesying his own return.
In Act 2 we see the return of Telemachus (the reliable Cyril Auvity) from Sparta accompanied by Minerva, athletically sung and acted by Claire Debono. Various transformations and explanations take place before Telemachus is convinced of Ulysses identity but Penelope is not. There is some terrific, powerful, expressive singing here from Kobie van Rensburg in the title role. There is also a comic interlude in which the gorgeously dressed suitors fail miserably to get Penelope to choose among them. The act ends with the famous scene of the “old beggar” stringing Ulysses’ great bow and slaying the suitors.
At the opening of Act 3 Penelope is still not convinced of Ulysses true identity. Only when he reveals the secret of their bedchamber, that no-one else knows, is she convinced and the opera ends with a meltingly gorgeous love duet between the two. So, some fine singing and acting throughout backed up admirably by Christie and his band.
Video direction is by Matteo Richetti and it’s sympathetic. He mixes up long, scene setting, shots and close-ups judiciously and generally does justice to the stage production. The picture is decent quality and helped by the relatively bright lighting. Bothe the Dolby surround sound and LPCM stereo options are quite good. The former being perhaps slightly fuller than the latter. There are quite insightful interviews with Rice, van Rensburg and Christie on the first disk. The documentation is also pretty good with a useful synopsis and a short essay. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.