Unlike L’Orfeo and Poppea which have both gained a secure place in the repertoire, Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his Country) remains a rarity. At least that was the case until the celebrations of the composer’s 450th anniversary this year triggered multiple performances throughout the continent. Only in the past weeks, there were stagings at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris and the National Theater Mannheim. The illustrious Monteverdi Choir will perform it next month in Aix-en-Provence to kick off its anniversary tour. At the Amsterdam Concertgebouw last Saturday, B’rock Orchestra performed the work, on the second stop of its European tour. Under the baton of René Jacobs and with a fine team of soloists, it was an inspired performance, outstanding musically and theatrically, that will hopefully contribute in giving Il ritorno the place it deserves in the repertoire.

René Jacobs © Josep Molina
René Jacobs
© Josep Molina

The libretto is based on Homer’s Odyssey. After the Trojan War, it takes Ulisse (Ulysses) another ten years to return to his kingdom of Ithaca, as he has to undergo the wrath of Nettuno (Neptune, god of the sea) who does everything to prevent him. Penelope has been faithfully waiting for the return of her husband, rejecting the courtship of her many suitors, and the advice of her servant, Melanto, to remarry instead of wallowing in unhappiness. When Ulisse eventually washes onto the shore of Ithaca, he is welcomed by his protector, the goddess Minerva who, for safety, disguises him as an old man and entrusts him to the shepherd Eumete. Minerva reunites Ulisse and his son Telemaco (Telemachus). At the palace, Penelope cannot turn down the pressure to take another husband any longer. She proclaims that she will marry the man who will manage to string Ulisse’s bow. None of the suitors succeeds. Ulisse, still in disguise, asks to try his luck, strings the bow and kills the suitors. In spite of her son Telemaco and her old wet nurse Ericlea’s assurance that the stranger is indeed Ulisse, Penelope is still reluctant to accept him, afraid of being tricked by a magic spell. Only when Ulisse describes the pattern embroidered on their wedding night’s bed linen does she recognise him and they are finally reunited.

The mise en espace is straightforward but effective. Touches of humour finish the whole theatrical experience enjoyably: maestro René Jacobs ducks under his music stand when Penelope’s suitors try to string Ulisse’s bow; as Iro, a glutton living off the palace’s riches, tenor Jörg Schneider proves he can whistle almost as well as he can sing.

Those expecting lean and pure orchestration would have been surprised by the richness of the sound Jacobs and B’rock have gone for. This rich orchestration is based on recent research that points to the fact that, historically, the work has been performed at court theatres, which would have had the financial means to hire more musicians than the small wooden public theatres. Here, even the basso continuo makes use of no less than a cembalo and organ, two lutes, three violas, a cello and a harp. The orchestral sound was luxuriant, full of beautiful colours, and didn’t shy from theatrical effects. The characters of the gods are underlined by their own personal instrumental accompaniment: magnanimous Jupiter (sung by Anicio Zorzo Giustiniani) by the string section; choleric Neptune (Jérôme Varnier) by the trombones; and their apparitions were punctuated with theatrical gusto by Laurent Sauron’s percussion.

Vocally, the performance was just as rewarding. As usual, some soloists sang several roles. Mary-Ellen Nesi managed to sing three parts with flying colours: the goddess Fortuna (Fate), the feisty servant Melanto and the old wet nurse Ericlea. The tessitura of Minerva’s florid music exposed disconnection between registers in Marie-Claude Chappuis’mezzo-soprano, but the protector of Ulisse ought to be humane and it certainly suited her other role of L’humana fragilità (Human frailty). Mirella Hagen’s bright soprano was perfect for Giunone (Juno) and Amore (Love). Anicio Zorzo Giustiniani’s handsome tenor, sounding attractively youthful as Telemaco, managed to gain authority as Giove (Jupiter). Tenors Mark Milhofer and Johannes Chum, together with bass Marcos Fink make a well-sung and theatrically irresistible trio of suitors. Thomas Walker’s characteristic, slightly husky timbre made for an endearing Eumete. Katarina Bradić was a suitably self-contained Penelope, her deep mezzo not always optimally projected but she unveiled an array of seductive dark-hued colours. The decision to cast a baritone as Ulisse (for a starker contrast from the many tenors already in the cast) became a master stroke when the singer in question is Stéphane Degout, whose handsome burnished sound and tonal range were used with admirable effect to bring intense expressive variety to the mythological hero.