Seeing Zürich Opera’s new production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria made me wonder why this is the least performed of Monteverdi's three surviving operas. To me, its emotional message is as powerful as L’Orfeo or Poppea – and possibly more human – and in Willy Decker’s staging these universal emotional truths were explored through his typically modern yet non-specific, spare staging, fully utilising the versatile vocal and acting skills of the ensemble of this opera house.

Indeed, one of the reasons why this opera isn't performed so often may be because it requires a large cast of more than 20 characters (but no chorus) – although some singers take multiple roles – yet there is no starry role as in L’Orfeo or Poppea. Obviously the long-separated Ulysses and Penelope are the main protagonists, but the Gods who manipulate their destiny also play important roles, with the various people at Penelope’s court making up the rest of the cast.

The main plot deals with the final stage of Ulysses' journey to his homeland after being washed up on the beach in Ithaca, returning to his wife Penelope who has waited for him faithfully for 20 years spurning approaches from various suitors. There are two poignant recognition scenes that form the crux of the opera: that between Ulysses and his son Telemachus mid Act II, and the final recognition scene between Ulysses and Penelope.

Musically, what impressed me hugely was the diversity and individuality of the music Monteverdi gives to each of the characters, ranging from Penelope’s noble lament and Ulysses’ bitter monologues to the rustic songs of the herdsman Eumetes and amorous duets by Melantho and her lover. All this was supported by eloquent and vivid playing from the pit on period instruments, directed with conviction by Robert Howarth.

The largely monochrome set (by Wolfgang Gussmann) is dominated by a raised, raked large white circular rotating table where most of the human interactions take place. In the centre is Penelope in mourning mode in short black dress, black stockings and sunglasses to avoid emotional contact, and is surrounded by her entourage also in black suits and cocktail dress. In stark contrast, the Gods (Neptune, Jupiter, Minerva and Juno) appear/disappear upstage heralded by thunder and lightening on a rising scaffold with a chandelier and banquet tables full of champagnes bottles. They are dressed in flamboyant blue eveningwear (perhaps representing the colour of the sky and seas) providing contrast to the monochrome austerity of Penelope’s court.

Theatrically, Decker’s idea of having all the singers (except for Penelope and Ulysse and the Gods) on stage almost all the time, even when they don’t sing, forming a kind of choros, observing and reacting to the action as it unfolds, was highly effective and helped make the whole plot much tighter and seamless. For example, in the Prologue, where in many traditional productions the four allegorical characters (Human Fragility, Time, Fortune and Love) would form an independent scene, here they appeared from within the choros, and at the end the choros regrouped and the scene moved seamlessly to Penelope’s lament in Act I. The clever use of lighting (Franck Evin) helped the scene transitions too. No doubt being on the stage for the whole duration must be demanding for the singers, but I am sure they feel more actively involved in the story which in turn makes the audience feel part of the action too. Probably such an intensely theatrical staging can only be realised in a house like the Zürich Opera where many of the singers are members of the ensemble or regular guests.

Vocally, it was a fine cast, and hard to believe that apart from Sara Mingardo (Penelope), Kurt Streit (Ulysses) and Werner Güra (Eumetes), most of singers were making their role debuts. Mingardo's contralto voice is not a large one, but it has a dark and restrained beauty that is suited to the role of the stoical Penelope. Her opening lament, sung sitting on a black chair in the middle of the empty circular stage, was full of emotional sincerity, and accompanied by the subtle and sensitive continuo ensemble. Streit gave an eloquent performance as the bitter, and vengeful wandering Ulysses, which made his tender singing in the two recognition scenes even more poignant.

Other standout performances came from tenor Fabio Trümpy as the youthful Telemachus, stylish mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany as Minerva and young bass Erik Anstine as Time and one of Penelope’s suitors (all ensemble members). French countertenor Christophe Dumaux (as Human Fragility and another of the suitors) also displayed classy singing and I was especially impressed by Werner Güra’s lively portrayal of the herdsman Eumetes (here a homeless with a cardboard box house).

In the pit were members of Zürich Opera’s in-house period ensemble Orchestra La Scintilla, augmented by the excellent Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble. British conductor Robert Howarth, who took over from the originally billed Ivor Bolton mid-rehearsals, directed from the harpsichord with energy but always giving the singers space to express and generally he achieved a good balance between the stage and the pit. All in all, it was a virtuosic ensemble performance by everyone and it reminded me what a masterpiece this work is.