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Opera Club: Monteverdi’s ‘Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria’

Claudio Monteverdi
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Dramma per musica in three acts and a prologue
Nationaltheater Mannheim


For Opera Club this week, following on from last week’s ‘Classic’ recommendation of  Puccini’s La Bohème, for the ‘Discovery’, we go back to the very start of opera history, and to one of its most important sites.

Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Ulysses’ return to his homeland) was the composer’s first opera for the carnival in Venice – an annual season of diversion and culture that was essential for early opera commissioning and development. Premiered in 1640, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is based on Homer’s Odyssey, and can be described as a true “Erzähloper” – an opera that tells an elaborate, chronologically-organised story with a multitude of locations and characters.

Monteverdi and his librettist Giacomo Badoaro understood their work as a continuation of the tradition of ancient Greek tragedy – an influence that is clearly noticeable in the dramatic structure of the story and, not least, in its cathartic ending. The narrative follows Ulysses on his return journey home to Ithaca, where his wife Penelope is awaiting him eagerly after the Trojan Wars have come to an end. Every company tackling this rarely-performed opera is confronted with questions about the original version’s instrumentation, which was not noted in the surviving manuscripts. Ensembles specialising in historically-informed performance practice therefore must take clues from other pieces completed around the same time (and indeed earlier Monteverdi operas) and arrive at their own decisions.

In the production at Nationaltheater Mannheim, the Stuttgart-based early music ensemble Il Gusto Barocco realise the score with great gusto under the musical direction of Jörg Halubek – and thankfully the orchestra is placed within the vicinity of the action; visible, involved. Markus Bothe is the director. The cast includes tenor Nikola Diskić as Ulysses and Marie-Belle Sandis as Penelope.

Link to the recommended production of our ‘Classic’ opera last week: