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Three-times Grammy-nominated Boston Baroque—’one of the world’s premier period-instruments bands’ (Fanfare, USA)—performs Il ritorno d’Ulisse, one of the pillars that place Monteverdi among the greatest of opera composers. Portuguese tenor and baroque specialist Fernando Guimarães stars in the title role, with internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as his loving wife Penelope.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Martin Pearlman © 2015
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 writtenout 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 Act 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
The setting is Ithaca, an island in the Ionian Sea.
(Track 2) Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, laments the absence of her husband, who left for the Trojan War twenty years earlier and has not returned. Her nurse Eurycleia tries to console her. (Track 3) Meanwhile, Penelope’s young maid Melantho and Eurymachus sing of their love. They are in league with the suitors and hope to convince Penelope to take a lover. (Track 4) In another part of the island, Phaeacian sailors bring the sleeping Ulysses to the shore of Ithaca, his homeland. (Track 5) Neptune, angry that Ulysses blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, had kept the hero from his homeland for ten years, but now Jupiter convinces him to allow Ulysses’ return. (Track 6) Neptune satisfies himself by turning the Phaeacians and their ship to stone, and leaves Ulysses in peace. (Track 7) Ulysses awakes abandoned and confused; (Track 8) the goddess Minerva, disguised as a shepherd boy, tells him that he has landed in Ithaca. She then reveals herself as the goddess and offers him guidance. He is to be disguised as an old beggar and go to his palace, where he will find Penelope beleaguered by her suitors. (Track 9) But first he is to wait for Minerva in the company of his faithful swineherd Eumaeus. (Track 10) At the palace, Melantho tries unsuccessfully to convince Penelope to give up her mourning and marry one of the suitors. (Track 11) In the countryside, the swineherd Eumaeus is enjoying the pastoral life when (Track 12) he is pestered by the boorish glutton Irus, a toady of the suitors. As he chases Irus off, (Track 13) he encounters Ulysses disguised as an old beggar. The ‘beggar’ informs Eumaeus that his master will soon return from the war.
(Track 1) Guided by Minerva, Ulysses’ son Telemachus returns from a voyage in search of his father. (Track 2) Eumaeus rejoices at his safe homecoming and relates the beggar’s prophecy that his father will soon return. Eumaeus then departs to tell the news to Penelope. Left alone with the beggar, Telemachus sees the earth suddenly swallow him up; he views it as an omen that his father has died. (Track 3) However, Ulysses soon reappears in his true form, and father and son are joyfully reunited. Ulysses sends Telemachus to Penelope and will resume his disguise. (Track 4) In the palace, Melantho complains to Eurymachus that Penelope is inflexible and refuses to accept any suitor. They then sing of their love for each other. (Track 5) The three suitors, Amphinomus, Peisander and Antinous, court Penelope but cannot break down her resistance. To cheer her up, they decide to entertain her with song and dance. (Track 6) Eumaeus tells Penelope that her son has returned and that her husband is alive and will also soon return, but she is sceptical. (Track 7) The suitors hear of the return of Telemachus and of Ulysses’ imminent return, and they are fearful. They plan to murder Telemachus and to offer gifts to Penelope to hurry her decision, but an eagle flies overhead, a sign that the gods disapprove. (Track 8) In the forest, Minerva promises Ulysses her protection: she will influence Penelope to propose a contest that will give Ulysses the opportunity to destroy the suitors. (Track 9) Eumaeus reports to Ulysses that the suitors are terrified at the prospect of his return. (Track 10) Telemachus tells his mother about the divinely beautiful Helen, whom he visited on his travels, and of Helen’s prophecy that Ulysses would return home and slay the suitors. (Track 11) The suitors rebuke Eumaeus for bringing the beggar into the palace. The obnoxious Irus provokes the beggar to a wrestling match but loses to the old man. (Track 12) enelope, taking pity on the beggar, offers him her hospitality. Each of the suitors in turn courts Penelope, offering her his treasures. Finally, Penelope appears to soften and, under the invisible influence of Minerva, proposes a contest in which whoever can most easily string Ulysses’ bow will win both her hand and the kingdom. (Track 13) Each of the brash suitors attempts to string the bow but cannot bend it. Then the old beggar comes forward, asking not for the prize but for a chance to try the bow. To the amazement of everyone, he easily strings it; he then shoots the suitors dead.
(Track 1) Irus is in despair. The suitors have been slain, and there is no one to feed him and provide for his needs. He wants to kill himself. (Track 2) As Melantho bemoans the loss of the suitors, a dispirited Penelope feels that every love for her is fatal. (Track 3 & 4) Eumaeus and Telemachus try to convince her that the old man who slew the suitors was in reality Ulysses, but she does not believe it and considers them merely gullible. (Track 5) At the sea, Minerva asks Juno to intercede with Jupiter to allow Ulysses to live in peace. (Track 6) Jupiter persuades his brother Neptune to end his persecution, and, as Neptune agrees, we hear a choir from heaven and a choir from the sea extolling the mercy of the gods. Jupiter then asks Minerva to quell the uprising of the Achaeans, who are angered at the death of the suitors, their rulers. (Track 7) The nurse Eurycleia has recognized Ulysses, but he has bidden her keep the secret. She does not know whether to tell or be silent. (Track 8) Eumaeus and Telemachus are still unable to convince Penelope that Ulysses has returned. (Track 9) Ulysses enters in his true form, but others have also claimed to be the hero, and she is worried that sorcery could make him look like Ulysses. Even when Eurycleia reveals that she has seen his old scar, Penelope still doubts. But when Ulysses describes the silken cover that used to be on their bed, something which no one else has seen, those doubts are laid to rest. She sings an aria of rejoicing, and husband and wife are at last reunited.
Martin Pearlman © 2015