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Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

CD Button Wool, Nims, Rivera; Sheehan, Auchincloss, Guimarães; Boston Baroque, Pearlman. Text and translation. Linn CKD 451 (3)

Recordings Ulisse in Patria Cover 1115

BILLED AS A NEW PERFORMING version rather than a new edition, Martin Pearlman's realization of the bare bones provided by Monteverdi's score is done mostly with a light touch. There is little excision (Minerva's brief reappearance at the end of Act II is a tiny exception) and there are no interpolations of freestanding orchestral music. There are no speculative reconstructions of music for the scenes in the libretto where no original music has survived, and there seems to have been a bit of trading between the lines for the two suitors Anfinomo and Pisandro. Mainly, Pearlman has fleshed out some instrumental material that he adds to the more rhythmic passages of recitative. Strings come in during Melanto's little song about lilting love, there are effusive instrumental lines for Eumete's solo at the start of Act II, and Ulisse and Eumete’s duet even turns danceable. There's a bit of a rewrite for Penelope's final solo of rejoicing. Ornamentation, once past the prologue, is chaste. 

If nothing in Pearlman's handiwork calls attention to itself, then good. It also helps account for the particular tint of this recording. There have been versions of Ulisse that seemed studies in marmoreal ritual, and versions that took delight in the syllable-by-syllable inflection of Monteverdi's setting of text. But this one, for which Pearlman is music director and one of the harpsichordists, is notable for what might be termed a "modern" sensibility in the dramaturgy. The Telemaco of Aaron Sheehan, for example, is initially boyish, but in this portrayal he gradually becomes a man; the reappearance of his father is the turning point. (Sheehan also beautifully narrates his story of meeting Helen of Troy.) Daniel Auchincloss finds a similar progression in the characterization of Eumete, with floods of notes in his excitement in Act II about the announcement to Penelope about Ulisse's return, but later a much subtler announcement to her that she has already seen Ulisse, dressed as a beggar, in Act III. Krista River's Ericlea is also a detailed performance, weighing the consequences of telling what she knows. Owen McIntosh's Giove is an unexpectedly human portrayal of the god, and the Melanto of Abigail Nims, after a conventional start, shows real growth by Act III.

Jennifer Rivera plays the central role of Penelope as a real woman, not a symbol. Her interpretation is something of an inversion of the norm. Her feelings are very much on the surface at first, rather than buried by the weight of years, making a fine tension with the character's many words of stoicism, and she deepens the portrayal with the way she treats the beggar. Only in the final moments before she at last acknowledges Ulisse does she blanch into purity with which Penelopes play the earlier scenes. Fernando Guimarães is mostly a Ulisse in the mold of a conventional action figure, but the production as a whole treats the work almost like a brand new opera. It renews appreciation for the way Monteverdi, presented with a not especially astute libretto, tweaked such elements as the timing of the revelation as to who Minerva really is, and the presence of Penelope at the archery trial, with a fine dramatic instinct that puts some of today's literary adaptations to shame. —William R. Braun

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