Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is based on the last books of The Odyssey, where Homer narrates of Ulysses (Odysseus) finally arriving back to Ithaca, his homeland, 20 years after having left for the Trojan war. Monteverdi and his librettist Giacomo Badoano paint a true theatrum mundi: the world as a stage where humans play their part for the amusement of the gods. This concept is presented right at the beginning, in the prologue of the opera, where a character representing Human Frailty laments his fate while being tormented and mocked by gods and by the embodiments of Time, Fortune and Love. In Willy Decker's production at Staatsoper Hamburg, countertenor Christophe Dumaux was stripped almost naked, covered in ashes, and then ridiculed and tortured by a crowd of singers.

Christophe Dumaux (Human Frailty) © Monika Rittershaus
Christophe Dumaux (Human Frailty)
© Monika Rittershaus

This was a constant theme in Decker's production. Singers were almost always on stage, even when they were not singing, representing a sort of Greek Chorus participating and commenting on events with their presence and body language. This proved to be an effective way to involve the singers in the performance: most of them were constantly in character, which added to their commitment to the role.

The action took place on a large, tilted, rotating white disk. The gods, dressed in fancy blue evening gowns and tuxedos, appeared in the background at a rich banquet table, where they mostly engaged in watching the men and laughing. The treatment of the gods was one the weakest points in the production: they were reduced to one-dimensional figurines, with no depth and no discernible rational motives. But maybe this was the point – depicting the human view of Fate and the gods ruling it as fickle, inscrutable, silly and cruel.

<i>Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
© Monika Rittershaus

The orchestra seemed quite large for early music, but conductor Václav Luks, leading the excellent Collegium 1704, managed to keep a reasonable balance between pit and stage. The harpsichord was perhaps on the loud side in its accompaniment of the declamatory style singing typical of Monteverdi; its presence became almost obsessive towards the end of the evening. But, overall, the performance of the continuo was excellent, with some of the musicians climbing onto the stage to play during the rejoicing and dancing scenes.

Sara Mingardo (Penelope) © Monika Rittershaus
Sara Mingardo (Penelope)
© Monika Rittershaus

Ulisse requires some 20-odd characters (with some doubling of roles), and the cast at the Staatsoper was very strong. Sara Mingardo was an astounding Penelope. Her contralto is perfectly suited to early music, while her interpretation was committed and moving. She was on stage for most of the performance wearing sunglasses, distancing herself from the other characters and from the audience, portraying Penelope as an archetype more than a real woman. Still, her lament at the beginning of the opera was heartbreaking, her repetition of "Torna, torna Ulisse" haunting in its desperation. She mastered the composed outrage of the widow with palpable charisma in her stern treatment of the suitors. The contrast in her demeanour during the final duet with Ulysses after she recognizes him (and takes off the sunglasses) was heartwarming.

Ulysses was Kurt Streit, who portrayed a vengeful warrior more than a loving father and husband. His interpretation was strong and emphatic, but there were also subtle, tender moments: the meeting with his son Telemachus and the aforementioned final duet with Penelope. Among the gods (Jupiter, Neptune, Juno and Minerva) Dorottya Láng stood out as Minerva, with a warm mezzo and a lively interpretation. The others, Alexander Kravets, Luigi De Donato, and Gabriele Rossmanith (also singing La Fortuna) suffered from their position on the stage. They were almost always singing from far away, behind the large disc where the humans were "performing"; their voices did not get the deserved prominence.

Kurt Streit (Ulisse) © Monika Rittershaus
Kurt Streit (Ulisse)
© Monika Rittershaus

The three suitors, Denis Velev, Viktor Rud and again Christophe Dumaux, were very well casted vocally; Dumaux in particular confirmed his extraordinary qualities as a countertenor with a round, beautiful voice and great acting qualities (his sudden collapse when he touched Ulysses' bow was priceless). As characters, they were portrayed a bit like the Three Stooges: silly, scheming, overall shallow characters, which may be fitting, but doesn't explain why Penelope almost chose one of them as a husband. Melanto and Eurimaco have some of the best music in the opera, a lovely duet right after Penelope's lamentation at the beginning. While Marion Tassou as Melanto was enjoyable, Oleksiy Palchykov's voice seemed out of style, which made him seem a bit out of character. Of the dozen or so other characters, I want to mention Katja Pieweck as Ericlea, Penelope's nurse, who displayed a very warm mezzo and a heartfelt interpretation.

The performance was well received by the Hamburg audience, who granted a deserved success to singers and orchestra.