Claudio Monteverdi Riveting Human Drama With An Enviable Cast NEW

Il ritorno d'Ulisse is unquestionably one of the three pillars that place Monteverdi among the greatest of opera composers; this recording marks the premiere of a new performing version by Martin Pearlman.
Portuguese tenor and baroque specialist Fernando Guimarães stars in the title role, alongside the internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as his loving wife Penelope. Il ritorno d'Ulisse was a relatively recent discovery, but following its authentication in the 1950s and revivals in Vienna and Glyndebourne, the opera has enjoyed new found popularity. Martin Pearlman's new performing version benefits from the same attention to detail that has ensured his reputation as a leading champion of period performance. His highly considered approach to all aspects of the score and performance ensure this version is true to Monteverdi's original vision. With a libretto drawing from Homer's Odyssey, Il ritorno d'Ulisse is a riveting human drama with an enviable cast.

The cast

L’Humana Fragilità (Human Frailty) - Christopher Lowrey 
Il tempo (Time) - João Fernandes 
La Fortuna (Fortune) - Sonja Dutoit Tengblad 
Amore (Cupid) - Sara Heaton
Ulisse (Ulysses) - Fernando Guimarães 
Penelope, wife of Ulysses - Jennifer Rivera 
Telemaco (Telemachus), son of Ulysses - Aaron Sheehan 
Minerva - Leah Wool 
Tettuno (Teptune) - João Fernandes 
Giove (Jupiter) - Owen McIntosh 
Giunone (Juno) - Sonja Dutoit Tengblad 
Ericlea (Eurycleia), Penelope’s old nurse - Krista River 
Melanto (Melantho), Penelope’s young maid - Abigail Nims 
Eurimaco (Eurymachus), Melantho’s lover - Daniel Shirley 
Eumete (Eumaeus), a loyal swineherd - Daniel Auchincloss 
Iro (Irus), a parasite - Marc Molomot 
Anfinomo (Amphinomus) - Jonas Budris
Penelope’s suitors
Pisandro (Peisander) - Owen McIntosh 
Antinoo (Antinous) - Ulysses Thomas 
Phaeacian sailors - Jonas Budris, Christopher Lowrey, Ulysses Thomas 
Coro in Cielo (Choir in Heaven) - Sara Heaton, Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, Marc Molomot, Daniel Shirley
Coro Marittimo (Choir of the Sea) - Christopher lowrey, Jonas Budris, Daniel Auchincloss, Ulysses Thomas

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse

Opera in a prologue and three acts
Libretto by Giacomo Badoaro (1602–1654) 
A new performing version by Martin Pearlman

Only three operas by Claudio Monteverdi have come down to us. L’Orfeo (1607), his very first, is generally acknowledged to be the earliest great opera. then, after a gap of 33 years, during which Monteverdi wrote operas that are tragically now lost, we have two masterpieces from near the end of his life: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1640) and L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642).
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse is based on the story told in books 13–23 of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Ulysses returns home from the Trojan War after an absence of 20 years and slays his wife’s suitors, who have taken over his palace. the 73-year-old Monteverdi’s setting of Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto was premiered in 1640 during the carnival season in Venice, to such acclaim that it was revived the following season, an unusual distinction for an opera of the time. the first performances took place at one of the city’s new public opera houses, where, not only were production budgets severely limited, but where writing for a broader public affected the kinds of stories that were set to music. the story of Ulysses was familiar to the audience, and its abundance of blood and gore was a far cry from the nymphs and shepherds in the earlier Orfeo, which had been written for the Mantuan court. Not long after the premiere, Ulisse dropped from view until late in the nineteenth century, when a manuscript was rediscovered in Vienna, which appears to be a copy made for a later revival in that city. Initially there were doubts as to whether the newly discovered work was a genuine lost opera of Monteverdi. But by the mid-twentieth century, further documents were found which removed any doubts about the work’s authenticity.

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse is certainly the least well known and least performed of the three surviving operas, and that may have something to do with its relatively recent discovery and even more recent authentication. But another reason perhaps lies in the libretto itself, which some have suggested makes the work more difficult to put across than Monteverdi’s other late opera. Whereas Poppea is filled with brilliant dialogue between fascinating and deeply flawed historical characters, Ulisse is of necessity somewhat more formal in its portrayal of gods and heroes. The final act, which is largely devoted to the convincing of a reluctant penelope that her husband has truly returned home, has been called anticlimactic by some critics; and some scenes digress, such as the one in Act II (often cut) where Telemachus tells his mother about the beauty of Helen, whom he has seen in his travels. But Monteverdi’s music transcends these difficulties, and of course later composers would conjure great works from less than perfect librettos. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse is unquestionably one of the three pillars that place Monteverdi among the greatest of opera composers.

Our performing version

But perhaps the greatest reason that Ulisse is not heard more often has to do with the difficulties presented by the surviving material. The music survives in only one manuscript, although a number of manuscript copies of the libretto have been found. there is nothing in Monteverdi’s own hand, and the copyist’s score that does survive is hastily and sometimes carelessly written, probably after the composer’s death. It lacks many details (some of which may have been explained to the performers in rehearsal), it is incomplete in places and it has numerous small errors. This was clearly a rough working copy made for a particular production. Several scenes from the libretto are missing: either lost, cut from the production in question, or perhaps never set to music in the first place. A performance therefore requires many decisions to fill in the gaps in what the manuscript tells us.

For Boston Baroque’s production, I have checked every note and word of the surviving manuscript, a process that led to countless small adjustments – plus a few major ones – to what we find in modern editions. In many places, the manuscript is incomplete or unclear and a variety of interpretative decisions must be made. In Scene 4 of Act I, for example, there is a written instruction that the orchestra play a brief sinfonia while the sleeping Ulysses is carried in. We are instructed that ‘So as not to wake him’, the sinfonia should be played quietly and be limited to only one chord (i.e. one unchanging harmony). However, no music is provided, only a bass C to tell us what the unchanging harmony should be. We must therefore create a brief introduction, or sinfonia, on a C major chord to lead into the scene with Neptune that follows. In its static harmony, this number is reminiscent of the opening sinfonia of Orfeo, which is a fanfare on one chord.

In other places, only a bass line is given for an instrumental piece, and one must devise upper parts. an unusual example of this occurs at the end of Act II Scene 5. The scene concludes with a celebratory trio for the three suitors (‘All’allegrezze’), after which the score has just seven quick bass notes and the word ‘ritornello’. We have taken these notes as a phrase for repetition: we play them four times and add instrumental upper parts to round out the suitors’ trio and the scene.

One important revelation in the manuscript occurs at the point where Ulysses slays the suitors (end of Act II Scene 12). Just where the instrumental ensemble begins to build momentum for that climactic moment, most editions and performances have Ulysses interrupt with a prayer to Minerva in recitative before the rhythmic music resumes. The effect is always to weaken the drama, but a look at the manuscript reveals that this extra line of music is a footnote at the bottom of the page; it appears to have been added later and is probably not original. Our performance therefore omits the insertion, so that the rhythmic momentum continues to build to the end of the scene.


The score does not specify the instruments that should be used. the five-part ritornelli, or musical interludes, are almost certainly intended for strings, although a few other instruments may be added at times for colour. For most of the opera, however, the music is on just two staves: a vocal line plus instrumental bass. It is left to the performers to decide how to harmonize the bass line and to decide which instruments should play it. the use of a variety of continuo instruments, allows the palette to be varied according to the dramatic situation.
Probably the greatest difference among performing versions of Ulisse is in the matter of orchestral accompaniments. In the original score, the orchestra plays very little, mostly just extremely short instrumental interludes (some as brief as ten seconds). Beyond that, it accompanies singers in just three places: in the brief fight between Irus and Ulysses (middle of Act II Scene 12), at the moment when Ulysses slays the suitors (end of Act II Scene 12) and in Penelope’s song of joy in the final scene of the opera. All of this comes to less than 15 minutes out of a full-length opera, the rest of the score has the singers accompanied only by a continuo bass line.
The question then is whether the manuscript score is complete, or whether instruments were meant to accompany singers in passages where there is no music specified for them. Every production must address this issue. Some composers – notably Dallapiccola and Henze – have orchestrated the work throughout, giving it something closer to a nineteenth-century operatic sound. In skilled hands, this can be attractive, to some tastes; but it changes the basic character of Monteverdi’s work, making it impossible for the singers to be rhythmically free in declaiming their text. It also restricts the ability of the continuo players to improvise and to interact with the singers as they are meant to do in this music. At the other extreme are performances that limit themselves strictly to the written notes, so that the orchestra plays very little and almost never accompanies singers. To me, this last choice seems unnecessarily austere, of questionable authenticity and perhaps even somewhat timid: to have the ensemble sit silent for over 90% of the opera would have been as artistically and financially wasteful in the seventeenth century as it is in the twenty-first. Other performances, of course, fall somewhere between these two extremes.

My version for Boston Baroque occupies that middle ground, my approach being somewhat conservative as to how much instrumental music was to be added. I have composed orchestral parts to accompany the singers at certain moments of heightened drama, where a character breaks out of recitative into song. For the most part, these are simple accompaniments, designed not to interfere with the singers, although sometimes the instruments interact contrapuntally with the voice. Certainly there are plenty of hints to support this approach. some other operas of the time offer models in the form of written- out parts for instruments to accompany singers. There are even some operas that give instructions for an aria to be played ‘with violins’ or ‘with all the instruments’, even though no instrumental parts are shown in the score. In the manuscript of Ulisse, we find a few interpolated notes that appear to be cues for instruments to play, even though there is no music written for them. In Melantho’s little song in Act I Scene 10, ‘Ama dunque’, there are melodic notes written between her phrases, which implies instrumental accompaniment throughout the song. I have supplied music for four solo string instruments here, their parts incorporating the inserted notes in those bars where they appear in the score.

Overall, the sound of this opera is striking for its concentration of voices in the middle range: Monteverdi uses a remarkable assortment of various types of tenor and mezzo. The sonority of the accompanying parts I have supplied varies according to the dramatic context. Only low strings are heard in Penelope’s lament in the opening scene of Act I and in some of the music for the suitors. Bright solo violins accompany Fortune’s aria in the prologue, and solo violins lend a transparent accompaniment to the beautiful ‘Dolce speme’ duet of eumaeus and Ulysses in Act II Scene 2, as well as to Ulysses’ ‘Vanne alle madre’ at the end of Sct II Scene 3. In a number of places, the full five-part string ensemble is used. perhaps the densest instance of this is the accompaniment I have given to the great aria with which Eumaeus opens Scene 2 of Act II (‘O gran figlio’). occasionally I have also added recorders or cornetti to brighten the sonority, while cornetti alone accompany the gods in Act III Scene 7. Orchestral accompaniments like these can heighten moments of true song. But the core of this music resides in the freer speech patterns of continuo-accompanied recitative. For the human characters, these speech patterns tend to be relatively simple and straightforward. But the speech of the gods is often full of florid ornamentation, an unnatural speech that lends an aura of the superhuman.

The libretto vs. the musical score

There are many places in the opera where the libretto differs from the surviving musical score. Most notably, the book divides the drama into five acts while the score has three; and they have entirely different prologues. Sometimes the words differ between libretto and score, sometimes an entire scene in the libretto is missing in the musical manuscript. one must decide whether to follow the libretto as a guide to what the score was meant to be, or whether to follow the score as we have it. For the ‘missing’ scenes, have we lost music, or did Monteverdi never set them to music in the first place?
I have chosen to follow the musical score wherever possible. librettos of the time did not always reflect the finished opera: authors often considered their work to be independent poems and sometimes retained their original material, even after a composer had altered or omitted some of it in his opera. A libretto can sometimes help clarify details, but following the score means that we are using the one source that was actually designed to be used in performance. Monteverdi may well never have set to music the ‘missing’ choruses of nereids, sirens, underworld shades, etc. His main interest, as he wrote in his letters, was to portray the gamut of emotions, and he may well have felt that scenes such as these would have been a distraction from his purpose. There was, too, a possible practical consideration, since choruses were not a common feature in the cash-strapped public opera houses of Venice at the time.  © Martin Pearlman, 2015

Recording information:

Recorded at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA 27–30 April 2014 
Produced and edited by Thomas C. Moore 
Recorded and mixed by Robert Friedrich Five/Four productions, Ltd 
Surround mix engineering by Robert Friedrich and Michael Bishop Five/Four productions, Ltd 
Mastered by Michael Bishop using Five/Four Reveal SDM technology 
Assistant engineering by Ian Dobie 
Post-production by Five/Four productions, Ltd 
Cover image by Daniel M. Nagy 
Performance photography by Clive Grainger 
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