The cycle of the three Monteverdi operas -- L'Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, and L'Incoronazione di Poppea -- produced at the Zürich opera house in 1978 were historically important because Deutsche Grammophon's recordings were among the first video releases of the works, with the result that broad audiences could see that these early Baroque operas that had long been considered quaintly antiquated could, in fact, be dramatically compelling. The productions are likely to have less appeal to twenty first century audiences who have become accustomed to performances of considerably more musical, dramatic, and scenic sophistication. The artistic team of director and set designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and costume designer Pet Halmen was responsible for the productions. The soundtracks for the operas were recorded at the Zürich Opera in 1977, and the filming was done the following year in Vienna, and while the coordination between sight and sound is good, there is little sense of spatial realism as the singers move around the stage. Ponnelle's lavish set designs evoke the aesthetic sensibilities that it's easy to imagine being in vogue in early seventeenth century Venice, as do Halmen's often quirky but sumptuous costume designs. The operas were produced with a unified concept, so there is strong stylistic continuity between them in the musical approach, direction, and design elements, but some are more successfully executed than others. The productions of Orfeo and Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria are problematic, but L'Incoronazione di Poppea, while flawed, is often persuasive.
The orchestration of Orfeo is remarkably detailed for early Baroque opera, a virtual anomaly in a period in which most operas existed only in short score, with the vocal parts over a bass line, and with instrumental parts written out only in the purely instrumental sections, and Harnoncourt wisely sticks closely to Monteverdi's intentions. The Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich plays with spirit, if not with the interpretive freedom that tends to characterize more recent performances. The large cast is vocally strong and sings with bel canto fullness of tone, even though it lacks the command of early Baroque vocal production and ornamentation audiences have since come to expect. As a purely musical experience, the opera is successful if taken on its own terms, and a CD release might well have been more persuasive than this DVD. Ponnelle's lavishly detailed sets are Baroque, in the literal original meaning of the term that came to be associated with the musical era -- absurdly, almost grotesquely ornate -- and the costumes by Halmen are essentially inspired by the Baroque period. Both designers go over the top scenically, and the effect can be wonderfully evocative (as in the luridly decorated third act, in which a genuinely scary Charon ferries groups of freakish wraiths across the Styx while Orfeo sings "Possente Spirto"), or just plain silly, for most of the rest of the opera. Orfeo's costume, consisting of a military breastplate above the waist, with what looks like a cheerleader's skirt and go-go boots below, is especially appalling. Ponnelle's dramatic conception has some interesting conceits (for instance, the chorus, in Baroque dress, is arrayed in a gallery around the stage, as the audience might have been in the original production), but in general his slack direction does the opera no favors. All emotions are expressed with the most clichéd exaggeration and involve an embarrassing amount of mugging. Particularly distressing is Ponnelle's penchant for having the orchestral musicians popping on-stage and prancing around with the actors. The film editing is tone-deaf and amateurish, with the camera shots so random and disjunctive and inelegant that it virtually destroys any sense of the opera's continuity. The DVD has documentary value, but primarily as a record of how far understanding of Monteverdi has come since the 1970s.
The large cast of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria is vocally strong and every lead has the technique and vocal expressiveness to bring these characters musically to life. Werner Hollweg as Ulisse, Trudeliese Schmidt as Penelope, Francisco Araiza as Telemaco, Helrun Gardow as Minerva, Renate Lenhart as Guinone, Hans Franzen as Nettuno, Arley Reece as Iro, and Paul Esswood, Simon Estes, and Peter Straka as the suitors all deliver solid performances. The musical problems begin in the pit. Harnoncourt assembled an orchestra of 38, including various keyboards, orchestral strings, plucked strings, winds, brass, and percussion. Only a short score of Ulisse survives, essentially a bass line with the vocal parts, so the critical job of reconstructing the score falls to the conductor or an editor. Harnoncourt's decision to use practically every instrument he can lay his hands on is a dubious historical and aesthetic choice. He exercises none of the judiciousness Monteverdi showed in the conservative deployment of his forces in Orfeo; this production bombards the listener with orchestral effects Monteverdi could probably never have dreamed of, much less brought to execution in the atmosphere of economic restraint that governed the size of pit orchestras in Venice of the 1640s. Ponnelle's direction is mostly fairly naturalistic, but whether through his intent or the singers' lack of dramatic skill, most of the acting involves the eyebrows; any strong emotion is telegraphed by the actors going google-eyed. The tone of the production, which is skewed toward the comedic and lighthearted, misses the depth of feeling that's essential for the opera to deliver its full punch; Penelope is having entirely too much fun flirting with the suitors for her ultimate reunion with Ulisse to embody her transformation from abject despair to joy that the plot requires. Ponnelle's worst misjudgment is having the orchestra members, in modern concert dress, integrated into the action. The concept goes most disastrously awry when Iro lurches into the orchestra pit and starts pawing at the instrumentalists, and most embarrassingly, at Harnoncourt himself, who (quite understandably) hands over the dagger with which Iro dispatches himself. The quality of the video production further lowers the standards of the endeavor. Scenes intended to be played without a break are interrupted by aurally and visually empty dead spaces. Painfully extended close-ups alternate with long sequences shot at such a distance that the actors' expressions are unreadable. Most execrably, at the opera's climax when Ulisse and Penelope, after being separated for 20 bitter years, finally come together in a duet of blissful intimacy, the camera pans above their heads to focus on a tapestry, so the opera ends with the audience left listening to disembodied voices, watching the scenery. The overall dramatic, technical, and production values of the DVD make this version a disappointment.
L'Incoronazione di Poppea suffers from some of the same musical and dramatic flaws, but it is overall a more compelling production. Ponnelle's direction lacks a unifying concept, and apart from the blocking, the singers seem to be left to their own devices, some to better effect than others, but in general he demonstrates more restraint than in the other operas. The quality of singing makes this version notable. Especially impressive is Matti Salminen, a magisterial Seneca. Rachel Yakar sings with gorgeous, supple tone as Poppea, and she has engaging acting skills, the same being true for Janet Perry as Drusilla. Trudeliese Schmidt as Ottavia and Paul Esswood as Ottone sing convincingly, but have minimal dramatic presence. Eric Tappy's Nerone is the most distracting visual element in the production; dressed in an outrageous red wig and a hot pink bathrobe, he does almost all his acting with his voluminous, capricious eyebrows, and his dithering cavorting contradicts any sense of the tyrant's menace. Alexander Oliver steals the show as Arnalta; his musical characterization is astute, able to encompass both humor and surprisingly deep feeling, and his singing is genuinely lovely, especially his languid "Oblivion soave." While this version is about a half hour shorter than the absolutely complete version, the cuts are discreet and reasonable, and the performance still clocks in at over two and a half hours.