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from notes by Martin Pearlman © 2015
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.
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
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A glittering international cast of soloists revels in the seductive allures of Monteverdi's opera as the familiar Homeric epic gives voice to moral ambiguities as pertinent today as they were in the Venice of 1641.» More