John Eliot Gardiner

Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

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Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, or The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland, is not performed nearly as often as Monteverdi's two other surviving operas, Orfeo and L'incoronazione di Poppea, and for several decades its authenticity was questioned. Yet it has begun to catch on, and it seems to contain many of the coming developments of opera in miniature at one point or another. The story, as the title suggests, comes from the later stages of Homer's Odyssey, as Ulysses returns home from the wars to Ithaca, where he finds suitors buzzing around his faithful Penelope. The requisite heroics are carried out by Ulysses and his son, Telemachus, but they're surrounded by a variety of scenes with comic, rustic characters that seem to anticipate the pastoral side of later Baroque opera (although it's not clear whether the opera was performed again after its initial Venetian run). The whole thing is something of a mixed bag, which is not in itself a problem. One key is to perform the three-act version, which happens here: John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists started out a 2017 tour performing the original, semi-staged, five-act version, but apparently relented and turned to the shorter revision. Another important trait of this recording is that Gardiner keeps things moving; his chorus, shaking off a decade of pious Bach performances, is lively and fun. The singers, with the exception of the strained Lucile Richardot as Penelope, are briskly effective. Sample the giant finale of Act 2, which gives you an idea of most of what goes on: the richly melodic solos and duets, the action, the comedy. The recording was made at the National Forum of Music in Wroclaw, Poland, and it's as clear as could be desired, and Gardiner's booklet notes continue to be models of compelling personal response to the music.

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