Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is in some ways the most problematic of Monteverdi's three surviving operas. Giacomo Badoaro derived the libretto from the closing sequences of The Odyssey, but tarted up the story with the kinds of dramatic accretions that were beginning to calcify the conventions of operatic plots by the 1640s. Monteverdi simplified the plot by choosing not to set some of the scenes, but the opera remains dramatically unwieldy. Glen Wilson, who conducts the production for De Nederlandse Opera (part of its remarkable Monteverdi cycle, which includes a staged version of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda) is unapologetic in explaining his decision to cut sections of the score (and some roles) that detract from the central human drama of Penelope's long grieving for the husband she fears may never return, but whom she continues to love passionately.
Wilson divides Monteverdi's three acts into two, breaking between the second and third of Badoaro's original five acts. The first half is devoted to the exposition, establishing Penelope's dilemma, Ulisse's return in disguise to Ithaca, and the goddess Minerva's intervention, initiating the restoration of Ulisse and his son Telemaco to their rightful places in the royal palace. The active drama begins in the second half, with the scheming of Penelope's suitors, Ulisse's victory over them, and Penelope's poignant recognition of her husband.
In the production by Pierre Audi, the director works to build momentum in the first half, but the succession of extended monologues with few theatrical actions can make it dramatically slow going. The performances are grippingly engaging, though, and the characters' complex interior conflicts reward close attention even in the absence of overt drama. Contralto Graciella Araya is absolutely transfixing in expressing the depth of Penelope's grief. Her performance is a model of regal dignity and restraint, but the sadness in her voice and in her face is so nakedly vulnerable that the viewer is torn between the desire to drink it in and the impulse to look away out of respect for her private pain. As Ulisse, Anthony Rolfe Johnson is entirely convincing as the great military hero reduced to impersonating an old beggar in the hope of recovering his wife and his legacy. Diana Montague is a particularly fine Minerva, a powerful deity, but one with compassion and humor.
The production takes off with breathtaking urgency in the second half, both musically and dramatically. There are more lively ensembles and fewer somber soliloquies; the three suitors in particular, played by Jaco Huijpen, Christopher Gillett, and Brian Asawa, considerably enliven the action. In a stunningly theatrical moment, an eagle (played here by a huge live falcon) swoops through the hall, putting an end to their plotting. The staging of Ulisse's killing of the suitors is also highly effective. The dénouement of the opera, from that point until Penelope's belated recognition of her husband, reveals Monteverdi at his most brilliant as a musical dramatist. After the slaughter of his patrons, Iro, who has been portrayed as a buffoon throughout, is given a scene of Shakespearean power, and Alexander Oliver's painfully exposed expression of loss and fear is shattering in its intensity. In a miracle of musical and dramatic transformation, Monteverdi turns his most disagreeable and loutish character into a subject whose humanity demands the audience's sympathy. Transformation is the key to the opera's closing. Ulisse comes to Penelope in the final scene, no longer an aged beggar, or even a hero beleaguered by 10 years of misfortune, but as a king, confident that his wife will eventually recognize him. The change is magical when she finally does; when Penelope smiles and weeps tears of happiness, 10 years of grief drop off her face. The lover's reunion is perhaps the most profoundly intimate moment in any of Monteverdi's operas.
The singers are uniformly superb; in addition to the psychological depth they bring to the characterizations, they perform with gorgeously full tone and absolute technical assurance. The unnamed Baroque ensemble, conducted with zeal by Glen Wilson, tends to be somewhat pallid and lacking in textural variety. Wilson defends the decision to use a small and largely homogenous ensemble as authentic performance practice, but Christophe Rousset, leading Les Talens Lyriques in the series' L'incoronazione di Poppea, achieves a much more colorful and varied accompaniment with just a few more instruments. This outstanding DVD should be of strong interest to any fans of Monteverdi and of Baroque opera.