Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is the weakest of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas. The music doesn’t have the pathos of L’Orfeo or the wicked playfulness of Poppea. There’s also not much drama: it’s an opera about waiting. Still, in the skillful hands of the Monteverdi 450 project team, Ulisse offered plenty to enjoy.

<i>Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria</i> at the Salzburg Festival © Salzburger Festspiele | Silvia Lelli
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele | Silvia Lelli

In Ithaca, the long-suffering Penelope laments her husband’s 20-year absence. Mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot’s queen is haughty and aloof. Her voice is warm and chesty; she belted out even the top notes of her lament. Strong emphases and nearly spit-out words gave dramatic force to her anger. Penelope firmly rejects her three suitors (a well-matched trio of countertenor Michał Czerniawski, tenor Gareth Treseder, and bass Gianluca Buratto).

Penelope’s attendant Melanto is not so reserved. She quickly yields to the loving entreaties of Eurimaco, a member of the suitors’ retinue. Soprano Anna Dennis and tenor Zachary Wilder enlivened the stage whenever they appeared. Their flirting, coloratura, and resonant voices all delighted. 

Dropped asleep on the shores of homeland, Ulisse awakens unsure of where he is. Furio Zanasi played up Ulisse’s weariness, his voice sharp in anger but drooping at the end of lines. His tone had great legato and richness, but sometimes faltered on yelled or sustained notes. The goddess Minerva (airy-toned soprano Hana Blažíková) tells him he is in Ithaca and advises him to don a disguise. Meanwhile, she brings his son Telemachus (expressive, agile tenor Krystian Adam) home. Ulisse reveals his identity to his son, but goes to the palace disguised as an old beggar.

Inspired by Minerva, Penelope declares that whoever can string Ulisse’s bow will be her new husband and king. All three suitors fail, but the mysterious beggar insists on trying – and succeeds. He kills the suitors. Penelope fears trickery and refuses to recognize that the beggar is Ulisse, even after he doffs his disguise and appears in his true form. He convinces her by describing the blanket on their bed, which she knows no one else has ever seen. They rejoice in their reunion.

<i>Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria</i> at the Salzburg Festival © Salzburger Festspiele | Silvia Lelli
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele | Silvia Lelli

The concert was semi-staged by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Elsa Rooke, with simple but evocative costumes by Isabella Gardiner and Patricia Hofstede. Rick Fisher’s dramatic lighting helped make the various omens and divine interventions clear. 

The staging and music came together best for Iro’s mock lament. (Some background: Iro is a gourmand who has been mooching off of the suitors. When they all die at once, he fears starvation and determines to hang himself.) He hid himself in the orchestra to escape the suitors’ fates and groaned out the first notes of his lament from there. As he did, the lights in the Felsenreitschule turned red in an overdone parody tragedy. This matched the music: overly long notes and extreme weeping effects, delivered by Robert Burt in a coarse, nasal character tenor. His desperate search for sympathy took him to the harpist, who repulsed him in annoyance. Finally, he resigned himself to death and slunk away.

Although the score for Ulisse lacks the soaring sections of L’Orfeo, it still pleases with its variety of edgy dissonances, velvety melodies, and jaunty ariosos. Under Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s baton, Monteverdi’s music had a clear shape. Lines swelled and died with extreme contrast, and the mood of each section of music was easily discerned. The English Baroque Soloists were well coordinated and balanced, both with each other and the singers. Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham deserve special mention for their clear-toned recorder solos (which gave me renewed appreciation for an instrument that has become unfortunately associated with middle-school music classes).

***11