Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

Article excerpt

Monteverdi 450 -- the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists' tour of his three operas to 33 cities across two continents -- began with his penultimate work Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, at Bristol's Colston Hall. It was a marvellous occasion, uplifting and entertaining. I hadn't been to the Colston Hall before, and was most impressed by its acoustics. Apparently it is due to have a £48 million makeover next year (call that £75 million) but it seemed new and with agreeably hard seats which counteracted any tendency the hall's tropical heat might have to induce drowsiness.

The opera was performed in a semi-concert version, which I am more and more inclined to hope is opera-in-general's way forward. Minimal intrusion from directors, maximum concentration on the music and, therefore, in a production as skilful as this, the drama. The gods were dressed formally, the mortals in contemporary casual wear, apart from Penelope. No props, not even a bow to test the Suitors. That was quite ingeniously solved by having Penelope herself as the bow, though she did look, at that point, like the Statue of Liberty deprived of her torch. It enabled Ulisse, once he had strung the bow (no string), to enfold her, which was moving but which she wouldn't have allowed until later. There was a lot of coming and going, which clarified the action, and together with the (blindingly bright) surtitles left one in no doubt where the plot had got to. It was a long evening, three hours and 40 minutes with a minuscule interval, and might have benefited from a little pruning, an 'authentic' suggestion, surely, though unthinkable for today's high-minded executants.

I have had good luck with Ulisse. I first got to know it in Raymond Leppard's version with Janet Baker and Benjamin Luxon. Monteverdians owe an incalculable debt to Leppard, though John Eliot Gardiner, in his introductory note, dismisses his realisations with 'their thinly disguised concessionary affinities to the sound-world of Respighi and Richard Strauss', which is rubbish, suggesting that Gardiner has never heard either. Then there was Opera North's wonderful production exactly 20 years ago; and Birmingham City Opera unforgettably mounted their own idiosyncratic version in a disused ice rink in 2005; and above all there was Pier Luigi Pizzi's production which I saw at Madrid's Teatro Real in 2009, conducted by William Christie with Christine Rice and Kobie van Rensburg unforgettable in the two central roles. None of Gardiner's team is on their exalted level, but the standard of singing is uniformly high, and they semi-act with intelligence and where required dignity. …

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