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Monteverdi: Il Ritorno D'ulisse In Patria / Asawa, Rolfe Johnson, Spence

Monteverdi / Asawa / Wilson
Release Date: 11/18/2008 
Label:  Kultur Video   Catalog #: 927  
Composer:  Claudio Monteverdi
Performer:  Jaco HuijpenToby SpenceAnthony Rolfe JohnsonGraciela Araya,   ... 
Conductor:  Glen Wilson
Number of Discs: 2 
Length: 2 Hours 52 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Format: DTS Surround Sound, Widescreen, NTSC, Color
Run Time: 172 minutes
Language: Italian
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

In his penultimate opera, based on text adapted from Homer’s Odyssey, Monteverdi ventures further than ever before into the depths of human emotion.

In this ‘dramma in musica’ human frailty falls victim to time, fortune and love. Gods and humans, comic and intensely serious characters and spectacular scenic effects are brought together in a wonderfully rich and effective texture.

Pierre Audi’s highly stylised and timeless production is captured here in a live recording from Het Muziektheater
Read more Amsterdam in 1998.


Glen Wilson is best known for his harpsichord performances and recordings, but functions here as conductor, music director—and editor. He makes his opinions very clear in a composite interview that furnishes the usual add-on for many operatic double DVDs. Paraphrasing Wilson, it’s apparent that collaborators worked with Monteverdi on Il ritorno because the master was ailing, and all of their music is far below his standard. Fortunately, it’s mostly tied to the supernatural element in the opera, which was simply added either to use sophisticated stage machinery of the day—boring, now—and to passages meant to placate ecclesiastical authorities. All of this dross and compromise can be easily removed.

This is breathtakingly spurious logic, and Wilson surely knew better. The single, surviving, anonymous manuscript of the opera identifies no other composers. Nor is whatever was written by Monteverdi’s “school” (his students, who, like Rembrandt’s, regularly did some portions of the master’s works under his supervision) elsewhere necessarily worse than the rest. In L’incoronazione di Poppea, a few sections now known to be by other, named students of Monteverdi are regarded as among its finer music. Finally, Wilson doesn’t stop at removing most of the supernatural elements outside of Minerva and the opera’s prologue (where the Human Soul, Time, Fortune, and Love are present). He also eliminates a fair amount of other material, including the complete and musically important role of Ericlea, Ulysses’s old nurse. It’s Wilson’s right to do what he wants with this score, filled as it is with uncertainties, but justifying his actions by such arguments does him no credit. It also means you get considerably less Il ritorno here than in other DVD versions.

For the rest, the production is “purist” in the sense that the singing is accompanied solely by continuo. Orchestration is reserved primarily for sinfonia and ritornelli. Wilson contends this frees up soloists to control dynamics and rhythms as necessary, though both the bare and unchanging nature of his continuo and the clear presence of closed, rhythmically regular forms in certain sections of the score would seem to offer points to opposing views.

The minimalist sets consist of an occasional rocky outcropping, stone throne, or abstract geometric shape on an otherwise bare stage. This works best in the symbolic Prologue, where a stark, six-foot circular ring alongside a blindfolded Fortune might be seen as the rising and falling nature of luck, or the wheel that binds mortals. It works decently in the rocky coastal scenes of Ithaca, or the sudden appearance of Jove’s sacred bird, a live eagle; but poorly in the palace interiors that felt empty.

The acting, similarly, is a mixed bag. With solid performers, it appears (based on rehearsal images interspersed within the composite interview) that stage director Pierre Audi concentrated upon physical refinements. Graciela Araya’s Penelope and Alexander Oliver’s Iro come vividly alive as detailed character portraits. Elsewhere, Audi seems to have worked the usual director’s trick of getting the rest of his cast to create impressive pictures. Some of these are good: Jaco Huijpen’s Antinoo glowering directly behind and over Penelope’s throne, for example. But at other times, the poses look (and must have felt) stiff and awkward. Johnson, who enfolds a vibrant tenor in a chubby, middle-aged body, was repeatedly reduced to standing with arms outstretched, legs spread wide, and knees bent. I wondered more than once whether Circe might have been partially successful and worked some batrachian transformative magic on the Greek hero.

The singing throughout is almost uniformly excellent. The most exciting came from Diana Montague’s Minerva, whose bright voice tosses out coloratura fearlessly and accurately; but Huijpen’s black bass and Asawa’s sweet countertenor were interesting in themselves—never mind the firm tone, clear enunciation, and accurate figures they brought to the music. Only Monica Bacelli as Fortune seems out of sorts in this live performance, with consistently poor intonation and breath control, but she got the measure of matters by the time she appeared on stage as Melanto. Oliver, already mentioned, was a special case: though possessing a wobble you could drive a school bus through, his intonation while landing on a note was perfect, and he fitted the part perfectly. Johnson’s voice possessed a beat whenever it rang out at full volume, but his coloratura was immaculate, and his intelligent interpretation of the role a pleasure that never waned.

A ratio of 16:9 (anamorphic) was employed for the visuals. This works especially well in the few non-intimate scenes, such as the lengthy one featuring the mock wrestling match and Ulisse’s vengeance. LPCM Stereo and Digital Surround Sound are supported audio options. Subtitles are supplied in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. In short, if you can accept the purist continuo and loss of so much music, the singing is excellent, and the show worth the price.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria by Claudio Monteverdi
Performer:  Jaco Huijpen (Bass), Toby Spence (Tenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Tenor),
Graciela Araya (Mezzo Soprano), Christopher Gillett (Tenor), Brian Asawa (Countertenor)
Conductor:  Glen Wilson
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1640; Venice, Italy 
Date of Recording: 1998 
Venue:  Live Amsterdam, Netherlands 

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