05 Oct 2015

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

The first performances of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, in Venice during the 1639-40 Carnival seasons, would presumably have involved a fair amount of stage business and spectacle: gods emerging from the ocean, or aloft in the firmaments; the transformation of the Phaeacian ship into a rock; the eponymous hero disappearing and descending beneath the earth when struck down by heavenly fire; air-borne chariots bearing Telemachus and Minerva; Jove’s soaring eagle.

Here, directors Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson adopted a ‘semi-staged’ approach and imaginative use was made of the whole Hall, with entrances through the auditorium, singers placed in the balcony, and action both before and behind the players of the Academy of Ancient Music who were seated centrally. Such spatial variety and displacement can be an immersive experience for the audience but on this occasion I felt that at times the listener’s ears and eyes were at times diverted from the central, driving dynamic of the work; that is, the reunion of Penelope with her long-lost husband, Ulysses. The performers all wore (their own, one presumes) black attire, and were distinguished by diverse coloured silk scarves and turbans; this created a visual intensity, and I felt that less fussy stage movement would have complemented and enhanced this focus.

But, there was no lack of vocal intensity. Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro remarked of the opera, ‘I have avoided thoughts and conceits taken from the abstruse, and I have rather aimed for the emotions’; and, who better to communicate emotional extremity than tenor Ian Bostridge who, in assuming the title role seemed, as he physically and vocally embodied the returning wanderer, to be re-visiting the quasi-existential extremes of Schubert’s Winterreise, with whose itinerant exile Bostridge appears to experience an astonishing, and at times unsettling, empathy. Bostridge pushed Monteverdi’s declamatory idiom to its expressive heights and boundaries: lyricising, crooning, snarling, rasping, Bostridge employed his increasingly full and rich lower register in particular, to present a disturbingly angry and discomposed figure, racked by his suffering and alienation. One sensed that this Ulisse was a man plagued as much by his own thoughts and philosophical reflections as by the deeds and words of others. Voice and body flinched with pain, yet the agony was assuaged by vocal sweetness; and in the final duet of reconciliation, the directness of the tenor’s line and tone, blanched of torment, was deeply moving.

In contrast to such visible and audible unrest, Barbara Kozelj’s Penelope was a still oasis of stoical forbearance. The part seemed to lie a little low for her and she could not match Bostridge’s vivid projection, but Kozejl’s reticence and reserve established a formality which spoke of an emotional self-containment which was a telling counterpart to Ulisse’s more evident distress.

Penelope’s self-protective detachment from the courtly disruptions and dramas around her was established in the Prologue. It was conventional to frame Venetian opera with a Prologue presenting the ethical and emotional dilemmas to be explored in the drama to follow, but - in contrast to La Musica’s opening address in Orfeo, whose import and relevance to the main action is self-evident - the direct connection between the Prologue of Il ritorno and that of the opera itself is less straightforwardly obvious. Here, Penelope stood centre-stage, her back to the audience, her head bowed, as Time, Fortune and Love tormented Human Frailty; subtly, thus, the heroine’s rare virtue, fortitude and constancy were intimated - and these qualities would prove a sure defence against Time and Fortune in the action to follow, revealing her Love to be far from the capricious fickleness presented in the Prologue.

Kozelj made much of the expressive devices - the dissonances and harmonic shifts - in Penelope’s Act 1 Scene 1 lament, while suppressing overt intimations of feeling, and reserved the enrichening of her tonal palette for her climactic Act III aria, ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’ (Penelope’s first ‘aria’ moment), in which she recognises her long-lost husband and rejoices.

The gods are distinguished by the extremity of their vocal ranges - Minerva is a high soprano while Nettuno is a deep bass - and the elaborate ornamentation of their vocal lines, and both Elizabeth Watts and Lukas Jakobski used such features to suggest magnificent magical power and mystery. Watts, disguised as an old hag, relished her cackling, chortling, shrieking entrance; but thereafter, the glossiness of her virtuosic arioso was noteworthy, the sheen adding lustre to the rage evoked. Jakobski demonstrated impressive diversity: he roared and bellowed as Nettuno, but was sweet-toned and beguiling as one of the suitors, Antinoo.

The opera’s characters are powerfully defined, dramatically and musically, and the cast successfully captured this strength and forthrightness. Writing of Sophie Junker in the role of Drusilla in the AAM’s performance of L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Barbican last October, I remarked the way her ‘joyful vivacity later gave way to tender reflection’; and, here, as Melanto, Junker combined a similar brightness and sensuousness. Melanto and Eurimaco were a deliciously light-hearted pair of servant-lovers whose flirtatious arias countered the dark sparseness of the central protagonists’ recitative. Tenor Gwilym Bowen had also impressed me in that Poppea - I wrote that ‘as Valletta and the First Soldier, [Bowen] moved and sang with naturalness, and demonstrated a pleasing, focused upper register’ - and I was delighted once again by the charming ease with which he conveyed Eurimaco’s unclouded love and happiness.

Co-director Alexander Oliver himself took to the stage, as the scurrilous, gluttonous social parasite, Iro, and was incisive and challenging in the role, defiantly mocking those who presumed to mock him. His Act III lament touchingly assumed a contrasting mode: the death of the Suitors at the hand of Ulisse, aided by Minerva, at the end of Act II leaves the protagonist heroically victorious and Iro disconsolate and alone. Oliver imbued the comic stutters and sighs with a tragic tone as Iro, threatening suicide, lurched towards insanity.

There were also impressive performances from Andrew Tortise, as Ulisse’s son Telemaco - whose vocal line possessed a beautiful sincerity - Christopher Gillett as Eumete, and Charmian Bedford, who was a lively and attention-grabbing Giunone. John Lattimore (Pisandro) and Richard Latham (Anfinomo) joined with Jakobski to form a mellifluous and well-blended trio of Suitors.

Richard Egarr maintained fluency, skilfully managing the opera’s flexible shifts between recitative and aria-idioms (madrigalistic word-painting, declamation and rhetorical emphasis, affective elaboration), and the stylistic mosaic cohered into a unified whole which drove persuasively towards its powerful climax. The closing image of a circle of gentle light - Penelope within, Ulisse without - was compelling. It almost seemed a pity to break the spell with applause, however much one wished to celebrate and thank the performers for their unwavering commitment and musical excellence.

Claire Seymour

Ulisse - Ian Bostridge, Penelope - Barbara Kozelj, Minerva/Amore - Elizabeth Watts, Telemaco - Andrew Tortise, Tempo/Nettuno/Antinoo - Lukas Jakobski, Melanto/Fortuna - Sophie Junker, L’Umana Fragilit√†, Iro - Alexander Oliver, Eumete - Christopher Gillett, Giunone - Charmian Bedford, Pisandro/Coro di Feaci - John Lattimore, Anfinomo/Coro di Feaci - Richard Latham, Eurimaco/Giove - Gwilym Bowen; Richard Egarr, director/harpsichord; Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson, co-directors; Academy of Ancient Music.