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Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

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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.

from notes by Martin Pearlman © 2015

In an allegorical prologue, Human Frailty is subject to the heartless taunts of Time, Fortune and Cupid.

Act I
The setting is Ithaca, an island in the Ionian Sea.
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. 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. In another part of the island, Phaeacian sailors bring the sleeping Ulysses to the shore of Ithaca, his homeland. 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. Neptune satisfies himself by turning the Phaeacians and their ship to stone, and leaves Ulysses in peace. Ulysses awakes abandoned and confused; 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. But first he is to wait for Minerva in the company of his faithful swineherd Eumaeus. At the palace, Melantho tries unsuccessfully to convince Penelope to give up her mourning and marry one of the suitors. In the countryside, the swineherd Eumaeus is enjoying the pastoral life when he is pestered by the boorish glutton Irus, a toady of the suitors. As he chases Irus off, he encounters Ulysses disguised as an old beggar. The ‘beggar’ informs Eumaeus that his master will soon return from the war.

Act II
Guided by Minerva, Ulysses’ son Telemachus returns from a voyage in search of his father. 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. 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. 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. 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. Eumaeus tells Penelope that her son has returned and that her husband is alive and will also soon return, but she is sceptical. 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. 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. Eumaeus reports to Ulysses that the suitors are terrified at the prospect of his return. 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. 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. Penelope, 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. 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.

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. As Melantho bemoans the loss of the suitors, a dispirited Penelope feels that every love for her is fatal. 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. At the sea, Minerva asks Juno to intercede with Jupiter to allow Ulysses to live in peace. 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. The nurse Eurycleia has recognized Ulysses, but he has bidden her keep the secret. She does not know whether to tell or be silent. Eumaeus and Telemachus are still unable to convince Penelope that Ulysses has returned. 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


Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
Studio Master: SDG730Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Act 1 Prologue: Mortal cosa son io (L'Humana Fragilità/Il Tempo/La Fortuna/Amore)
Track 1 on SDG730 CD1 [9'01] Download only
Act 1 Scene 01: Di misera Regina (Penelope/Ericlea)
Track 2 on SDG730 CD1 [10'57] Download only
Act 1 Scene 02: Duri, e penosi (Melanto/Eurimaco)
Track 3 on SDG730 CD1 [10'54] Download only
Act 1 Scene 04-05: Sinfonia – Superbo è l’huom (Nettuno/Giove)
Track 4 on SDG730 CD1 [7'23] Download only
Act 1 Scene 06: In questo basso mondo (Coro di Feaci/Nettuno)
Track 5 on SDG730 CD1 [3'13] Download only
Act 1 Scene 07: Dormo ancora, o son desto? (Ulisse)
Track 6 on SDG730 CD1 [3'52] Download only
Act 1 Scene 08: Cara e lieta gioventù (Minerva/Ulisse/Coro di ninfe)
Track 7 on SDG730 CD1 [12'23] Download only
Act 1 Scene 09: Tu, d'Aretusa al fonte intanto vanne (Minerva/Ulisse)
Track 8 on SDG730 CD1 [1'57] Download only
Act 1 Scene 10: Donate un giorno, o dèi (Penelope/Melanto)
Track 9 on SDG730 CD1 [8'23] Download only
Act 1 Scene 11: Come mal si salva un regio ammanto (Eumete)
Track 10 on SDG730 CD1 [1'50] Download only
Act 1 Scene 12: Pastor d'armenti può (Iro/Eumete)
Track 11 on SDG730 CD1 [1'52] Download only
Act 1 Scene 13: Ulisse generoso (Eumete/Ulisse)
Track 12 on SDG730 CD1 [3'00] Download only
Act 2 Prologue: Sinfonia
Act 2 Scene 01: Lieto cammino (Telemaco/Minerva)
Track 2 on SDG730 CD2 [2'01] Download only
Act 2 Scene 02: O gran figlio d'Ulisse (Eumete/Ulisse/Telemaco)
Track 3 on SDG730 CD2 [5'43] Download only
Act 2 Scene 03: Che veggio, oimé, che miro? (Telemaco/Ulisse)
Track 4 on SDG730 CD2 [7'21] Download only
Act 2 Scene 04: Eurimaco, la donna (Melanto/Eurimaco)
Track 5 on SDG730 CD2 [2'32] Download only
Act 2 Scene 05: Sono l'altre Regine (Antinoo/Anfinomo/Pisandro/Penelope)
Track 6 on SDG730 CD2 [7'01] Download only
Act 2 Scene 06: All'allegrezze dunque (Pisandro/Anfinomo/Antinoo/Coro)
Track 7 on SDG730 CD2 [5'13] Download only
Act 2 Scene 07: Apportator d'alte novelle venge (Eumete/Penelope)
Track 8 on SDG730 CD2 [1'12] Download only
Act 2 Scene 08: Compagni, udiste? (Antinoo/Anfinomo/Pisandro/Eurimaco)
Track 9 on SDG730 CD2 [6'31] Download only
Act 2 Scene 09: Perir non può chi tien per scorta il Cielo (Ulisse/Minerva)
Track 10 on SDG730 CD2 [3'05] Download only
Act 2 Scene 10: Io vidi, o pelegrin, de' Proci amanti (Eumete/Ulisse)
Track 11 on SDG730 CD2 [2'02] Download only
Act 2 Scene 11: Del mio lungo vïaggio i torti errori (Telemaco/Penelope)
Track 12 on SDG730 CD2 [4'55] Download only
Act 2 Scene 12-13: Sempre, villano Eumete (Antinoo/Eumete/Iro/Ulisse/Telemaco/Penelope/Pisandro/Anfinomo)
Track 13 on SDG730 CD2 [23'19] Download only
Act 3 Scene 01: O dolor, o martir che l'alma attrista (Iro)
Track 1 on SDG730 CD3 [7'07] Download only
Act 3 Scene 04: Forza d'occulto affetto (Eumete/Penelope)
Track 2 on SDG730 CD3 [2'11] Download only
Act 3 Scene 05: È saggio Eumete, è saggio (Telemaco/Penelope)
Track 3 on SDG730 CD3 [2'28] Download only
Act 3 Scene 06: Fiamma è l'ira, o gran Dea (Minerva/Giunone)
Track 4 on SDG730 CD3 [3'28] Download only
Act 3 Scene 07: Gran Giove (Giunone/Giove/Nettuno/Minerva/Coro in cielo/Coro marittimo)
Track 5 on SDG730 CD3 [9'30] Download only
Act 3 Scene 08: Ericlea, che vuoi far? (Ericlea)
Track 6 on SDG730 CD3 [3'25] Download only
Act 3 Scene 09: Ogni nostra ragion sen porta 'l vento (Penelope/Telemaco/Eumete)
Track 7 on SDG730 CD3 [0'52] Download only
Act 3 Scene 10: O delle mie fatiche (Ulisse/Penelope/Ericlea)
Track 8 on SDG730 CD3 [9'54] Download only

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