Wilson covers the major issues in performing and staging a Monteverdi opera, and presents his justifications for his own decisions. Working with stage director Pierre Audi, Wilson has most fortunately helped to create a performance that reflects the insight and knowledge the essay indicates are in his possession.
However, no one would buy a DVD for the booklet essay. Wilson and Audi have put together an effective staging of as old an opera as any that gets staged (first performance, 1641), and it is Monteverdi's genius that makes the DVD worthy. The ecstatic excitement of Verdi lay two centuries in the future, and the lusher melodicism of Puccini another generation or two beyond that. Monteverdi's operas will likely never be as essential to the core repertory as his operatic descendants' work is; but this DVD shows that his work still makes its claim to the stage.
The spare set works well with the spare music. Handsome wooden floors support a few well-chosen props - a simple throne, a huge rock - with a gravel walkway slashing across the front. To supple some color, Penelope and her suitors are dressed in handsome solids of green, red, blue and yellow. Otherwise, the costuming, especially for Ulisse, remains on the drab side. Stage director Audi keeps the performers moving without indulging in frenetic over-activity, and the stage picture never grows stagnant. The most memorable stage effect occurs at the climax, when Ulisse drops his disguise as an old man and wreaks vengeance on the suitors against a background of flame. A fearsome hawk (seen with its trainer in an enjoyable bonus feature) also makes an impressive appearance as the suitors try to string Ulisse's bow.
The supporting cast features some very strong performances, including Diana Montague as the goddess Minerva (Wilson edited out other sections about the gods), Brian Asawa as both a symbolic human figure in the prologue and as a suitor, and Toby Spence as Telemaco. In what amounts to a cameo, the portly Alexander Oliver almost steals the show as Iro, one of the more disgusting abusers of Penelope's hospitality, who survives the final carnage long enough to sing of his gnawing hunger without the suitors to feed him, and then dies before us. His sweaty, blood-stained appearance may haunt many a viewer, but what really matters is the powerful way he uses a not every attractive voice to bring the scene to life (and then to his character's death!).
Though the two leads both give committed performances, neither completely satisfies. As Ulisse, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson relies on the audience's suspension of disbelief, as his hefty frame hardly suggests a man who has been through many a brutal trial over 10 years of war and 10 more of wandering. He has the resources for the role's vocal demands, but seldom puts a personal stamp on the music. Graciela Araya has the dignified posture for Penelope, but her rather homely tone doesn't earn her character much sympathy.
This may not be, then, a performance of a Monteverdi opera to attract opera lovers who have found the composer's works less than appealing in the past. However, for those open to the experience, the set, recorded at the Netherlands Opera in 1998, has much to recommend it.
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy