Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto: Giacomo Baodaro
First performed: Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1639–1640 Carnival season
Il ritorno d’Ulisse is rather like a Shakespearean Romance: a part-melancholic, part-comic story of gods, castaways, shipwrecks, transformations, perilous voyages, and disguises, which ends, after many years, with a family reunited.
Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the opera tells of the hero’s return to his island kingdom of Ithaca after 20 years. His wife, the constant Penelope, is besieged by courtiers who want to marry her. Disguised as a beggar, and with the help of his son Telemachus, the swineherd Eumaeus, and the goddess Minerva, Odysseus kills the suitors, and is reunited with Penelope.
Along the way, there are sonorous gods, comic servants and spongers, and the dramatic scene where Odysseus confronts the foppish Suitors.
It’s also surprisingly free of shepherds in Arcadia. (There is a swineherd.)
Ulisse is, in fact, Ellen Rosand claims, “the first Venetian opera to diverge from the mythological pastoral”.
Opera in its early days was often a mixture of mythology with shepherds and shepherdesses – or aristocratic ideas thereof (rather like Marie-Antoinette playing at milkmaids at the Petit Trianon).
Opera, though, has gone commercial, moving from private performances for princes to public opera houses packed with paying punters. And they want something more robust than pastorals: “crowd-pleasing stage effects, spectacular arias, fast-moving, accessible plots, and occasional comic relief” (Cohen).
Monteverdi’s own Proserpina rapita (1630, now lost) was the impetus. The performance at Girolamo Mocenigo’s Venetian palace was one of the most magnificent spectacles hitherto seen, both for its music and for its pomp.
Could such a good thing be kept from a wider audience – particularly if there was a chance of making money?
Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Mannelli thought not. Italy’s first opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, Venice, opened its doors in Carnival 1637, with L’Andromeda, music by Mannelli and libretto by Ferrari.
Three more operas by the pair, and one by Francesco Cavalli, followed. And Monteverdi – Italy’s most famous opera composer – soon appeared before the Venetian public.
“Where strong emotions are concerned,” the nobleman and librettist Giacomo Baodaro wrote, “there is a vast difference between a painted image of the sun and the sun itself”.
A resurrection of L’Arianna (1608, now lost) in 1640 tested the waters; it was apparently found too old-fashioned, too courtly.
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia (lost) (both 1641), and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643) met with much greater success. Together, Rosand suggests, these operas form a historical trilogy moving from the aftermath of Troy (Homer), and the founding of Rome (Virgil) to the decadence of the Roman Empire (Tacitus), and the power of love.
Ulisse was “much-applauded”; it was performed 10 times at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1641, toured to Bologna, revived in Venice the next year, and possibly staged in Vienna later that century.
The opera was then lost until the end of the 19th century; the score was found at the Vienna State Library in 1881, but not performed until 1925, in an edition by Vincent d’Indy. Despite some doubts, most scholars agree these days that it is Monteverdi’s work.
Today, Ulisse is the most obscure of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas, and it has generally been ranked below Orfeo or Poppea. Denis Arnold (Monteverdi, J.M. Dent, 1963) called it an “ugly duckling”, an inventive score saddled with a diffuse libretto; while Jeremy Noble (Gramophone, September 1971) thought its music less full of character and imagination.
This is unfair; Ulisse is delightful. It is arguably more lyrical than Poppea, though dramatically weaker. Act I alone has Penelope’s moving lament; an exquisite little love duet for the servants; Neptune’s “Superbo e l’uom”; Ulisse’s spirited “O fortunato”, rejoicing at reaching Ithaca at long last; and a serene duet with the swineherd Eumete.
The courtly, serio-comic trio of the Suitors – ancestors of Mozart’s Three Ladies, Meyerbeer’s Anabaptists, and Puccini’s Ping, Pang, and Pong – liven the middle act. Too genial and amusing to be really nasty, even when plotting Telemachus’s murder, one feels rather sorry for their deaths; the cunning Odysseus, one remembers, was also a pirate.
The opera is also an allegory of the human condition. “I am mortal, created in human form,” announces l’humana Fragilità (Human Frailty) in the prologue. Through Time, which bites; fickle Fortune; and the tyrant Love, man is frail, wretched, and distressed. Suffering, it seems, is the human lot. Penelope waits for her husband to return; “sorrow and trouble never end for me, miserable queen! … time is lame for whoever lives in anguish”. Odysseus faces many obstacles in his quest for home and love.
Yet man triumphs over adversity: over the gods, and over his mortal enemies. And at last he finds his safe harbor.
“Man is proud, and is the cause of his own guilt though remotely,” Neptune proclaims. “Human freedom wages war against Destiny, fights with fate, dares all, risks all, makes itself indomitable, and the will of man struggles against heaven.”
Odysseus, as Tennyson would write a couple of centuries later, strives, seeks, finds, and does not yield.
Listen: René Jacobs’ 1992 recording, with Christoph Prégardien (Ulisse) and Bernada Fink (Penelope). Harmonia Mundi.
Watch: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1978 Zürich production, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with Werner Hollweg (Ulisse) and Trudeliese Schmidt (Penelope). Deutsche Grammophon DVD.
Denis Arnold, The Master Musicians: Monteverdi, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1963
Mitchell Cohen, The Politics of Opera: From Monteverdi to Mozart, Princeton University Press, 2017
John Whenham & Richard Westreich, The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi, Cambridge University Press, 2007
- L’HUMANA FRAGILITÀ [Human Frailty] (mezzo-soprano)
- IL TEMPO [Time] (bass)
- LA FORTUNA [Fortune] (soprano)
- L’AMORE [Cupid] (soprano)
- ULISSE [Odysseus], King of Ithaca (tenor)
- PENELOPE, wife to Ulisse (mezzo-soprano): Giulia Paolelli
- TELEMACO [Telemachus] (tenor)
- ANTINOO [Antinous], suitor to Penelope (bass)
- PISANDRO [Peisandros], suitor to Penelope (tenor)
- ANFINOMO [Amphinomus], suitor to Penelope (alto or countertenor)
- ERICLEA, Penelope’s nurse (mezzo-soprano)
- MELANTO, attendant to Penelope (soprano)
- EURIMACO, a servant to Penelope’s suitors (tenor)
- EUMETE, a shepherd (tenor)
- IRO, a parasite (tenor)
- NETTUNO [Neptune] (bass): Francesco Manelli
- GIOVE [Jupiter] (tenor): Giovan Battista Marinoni
- MINERVA (soprano): Maddalena Manelli
- GIUNONE [Juno] (soprano)
- CORO FAECI [Chorus of Phaeacians] (alto, tenor, bass)
- CORO IN CIELO [Heavenly Chorus] (soprano, alto, tenor)
- CORO MARITIMO [Chorus of Sirens] (soprano, tenor, bass)
- Mortal cosa son io (L’humanita Fragilità, il Tempo, la Fortuna, l’Amore)
- Scene I: Di misera regina non terminati mai dolenti affani! (Penelope, Ericlea)
- Scene II: Duri e penosi son gli amorosi fieri desir (Melanto, Eurimaco)
- Scene III: Maritime scene, music missing from score
- Scene IV: Music only – The sleeping Ulisse is placed ashore by the Faeci
- Scene V: Superbo è l’huom (Nettuno, Giove) [In some editions this scene begins with a Chorus of Sirens]
- Scene VI: In questo basso mondo (Chorus of Faeci, Nettuno)
- Scene VII: Dormo ancora o son desto? (Ulisse)
- Scene VIII: Cara e lieta gioventù (Minerva, Ulisse)
- Scene IX: Tu d’Aretusa a fonte intanto vanne (Minerva, Ulisse)
- Scene X: Donata un giorno, o dei, contento a’ desir miei (Penelope, Melanto)
- Scene XI: Come, oh come mal si salva un regio amante (Eumete)
- Scene XII: Pastor d’armenti può prati e boschi lodar (Iro, Eumete)
- Scene XII: Ulisse generoso! Fu nobile intrapresa (Eumete, Ulisse)
- Scene I: Lieto cammino, dolce viaggio (Telemaco, Minerva)
- Scene II: Oh gran figlio d’Ulisse! È pur ver che tu torni (Eumete, Ulisse, Telemaco)
- Scene III: Che veggio, ohimè, che miro? (Telemaco, Ulisse)
- Scene IV: Eurimaco! La donna insomma haun cor di sasso (Melanto, Eurimaco)
- Scene V: Sono l’altre regine coronate di servi e tu d’amanti (Antinoo, Pisandro, Anfinomo, Penelope)
- Scene VI: “Ballet of the Moors” – music missing from score
- Scene VII: Apportator d’altre novelle vengo! (Eumete, Penelope)
- Scene VIII: Compagni, udiste? (Antinoo, Anfinomo, Pisandro, Eurimaco)
- Scene IX: Perir non può chi tien per scorta il cielo (Ulisse, Minerva)
- Scene X: Io vidi, o pelegrin, de’ Proci amanti (Eumete, Ulisse)
- Scene XI: Del mio lungo viaggio i torti errori già vi narrari (Telemaco, Penelope)
- Scene XII: Sempre villano Eumete (Antinoo, Eumete, Iro, Ulisse, Telemaco, Penelope, Anfinomo, Pisandro)
- Scene I: O dolor, o martir che l’alma attrista (Iro)
- Scene II: The souls of the dead suitors are seen entering hell. Monteverdi did not set it to music, because he thought it too melancholy.
- Scene III: E quai nuovi rumori (Melanto, Penelope)
- Scene IV: Forza d’occulto affetto raddolcisce il tuo petto (Eumete, Penelope)
- Scene V: È saggio Eumete, è saggio! (Telemaco, Penelope)
- Scene VI: Fiamma e l’ira, o gran dea, foco è lo sdegno! (Minerva, Giunone)
- Scene VII: Gran Giove, alma de’ dei (Giunone, Giove, Nettuno, Minerva, Heavenly Chorus, Chorus of Sirens)
- Scene VIII: Ericlea, che vuoi far? (Ericlea)
- Scene IX: Ogni nostra ragion sen porta il vento (Penelope, Eumete, Telemaco)
- Scene X: O delle mie fatiche meta dolce e soave (Ulisse, Penelope, Ericlea)