Notes and Editorial Reviews
IL RITORNO D’ULISSE IN PATRIA
Pénélope – Vesselina Kasarova
Melanto – Malin Hartelius
Minerva / Amorel – Isabel Rey
Fortuna / Giunone – Martina Jankovà
Ericlea – Cornelia Kallisch
L’humanita fragilita / Ulisse – Dietrich Henschel
Telemaco – Jonas Kaufmann
Iro – Rudolf Schasching
Antinoo – Reinhard Mayr
Pisandro – Martin Zysset
Eumete – Thomas Mohr
Anfinimo – Martin Oró
Nettuno – Pavel Daniluk
Tempo – Giuseppe Scorsin
Giove – Anton Scharinger
Eurimaco – Boguslaw Bidzinski
Zurich La Scintilla Orchestra
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor
Klaus-Michael Grüber, stage director
Gilles Aillaud, set designer
Eva Dessecker, costume designer
Jürgen Hoffmann, lighting designer
Recorded live from the Zurich Opera House, 2002
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean
Running time: 155 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
R E V I E W:
MONTEVERDI Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria • Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond; Vesselina Kasarova ( Pénélope ); Isabel Rey ( Minerva/Amorei ); Malin Hartelius ( Melanto ); Bogus?aw Bidzi?ski ( Eurimaco ); Martina Jankovà ( Fortuna/Giunone ); Dietrich Henschel ( L’humanita Fragilita/Ulisse ); Jonas Kaufmann ( Telemaco ); Rudolf Schasching ( Iro ); Thomas Mohr ( Eumete ); Pavel Daniluk ( Nettuno ); O La Scintilla • ARTHAUS MUSIK 101660 (DVD: 155:00) Live: Zurich 2002
This performance, originally issued on Arthaus Musik 100353 in 2003, is here made available again, with a new catalog number. It marked the second time Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted this opera at Zurich, the first being in 1977 when Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s imaginative and opulent staging drew similarly opulent and—for Harnoncourt—surprisingly “non-historically informed” playing from the orchestra. The production was but an experiment, one that worked but was not meant to be definitive. This later, even more imaginative, staging by Klaus-Michael Grüber is much sparser, with almost a bare stage. Harnoncourt follows suit with much leaner orchestral textures, that seem much more appropriate to the music.
I have been critical of some Harnoncourt opera performances in the past, and may possibly be critical again in the future. For all his attention to period orchestral detail, Harnoncourt has a quirky (some would say weird) penchant for imprecise and fluctuating tempos. One might put this down to artistic license in early works such as this, where tempo indications were either sketchy or nonexistent, but it’s much harder to take in works with definite tempo indications such as Fidelio or Die Zauberflöte. Here, in this work, in this production, Harnoncourt’s musical and dramatic instincts are flawless. Note, for instance, how the emphatic pluck of a lute underscores Ulysses’s brief lines about death in act I, scene 2.
Flawless too are Grüber’s staging and the acting of the performers. Taking the concept of true Greek drama, Grüber’s staging, for the most part, uses costumes and sets reminiscent of very early Italian stage works—but not operatic stage works. The costumes are not fanciful, overly ornate or cumbersome, but look like Italian peasant costumes. This gives a wonderful naturalness to the production: there’s almost a L’amico Fritz or Cavalleria rusticana feeling to the sprightly love duet between Melanto (Malin Hartelius) and Eurimaco (Bogus?aw Bidzi?ski) in act I, and their singing is as magnificent, and magical, as their acting. It doesn’t hurt that both singers are attractive enough to almost be movie-star quality. Incidentally, the reference to Cavalleria extends as much to the staging as to the vocalism, and this is entirely appropriate. Many modern scholars believe that the island of Helios that Odysseus/Ulysses visited, which Homer called Thrinacia, is Sicily. The name Thrinacia, which means “three-pointed,” occurs on many ancient maps of Sicily and the three-sided logo on the Sicilian flag is called a trinacia, so score yet another point for stage manager Grüber.
Baritone Dietrich Henschel, in the dual role of Ulisse and “L’humanita Fragilita,” is also impressive as an actor and singer, despite my quibbles about a certain nasality in his voice during soft passages. Those who remember mezzo Vesselina Kasarova (who has not performed much in this country since about this time) will not be disappointed. Her unusual chameleon-like voice changes timbre easily yet surprisingly from a hollow, countertenor-like sound to a full mezzo timbre, and she uses this changing quality of tone to bring emphasis to the texts. I had on VHS an early-1970s performance of this opera from England, sung by Janet Baker and Benjamin Luxon. The staging was much more fanciful, almost comic in its use of stage contraptions (especially the harnesses and wires that allowed Fortuna and Amore to descend from the flies in the prologue) and overly-ornate costumes, and the orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard was considerably lusher than this one, but the acting of Luxon and Baker was superb. This production is considerably better all round.
As a contrast to the “realistic” scenes featuring Penelope, Melanto, and Eurimaco, Grüber stages the prologue and the scenes with Neptune in very dark settings, normally with just a bit of blue light to illuminate the proceedings. This lighting is also used in the prologue. The superb bass Anton Scharinger, known primarily as a Baroque specialist, surprises one with the power of his voice in his brief role as Giove—and even more so with the almost overwhelming power of his dramatic interpretation.
Indeed, the interpretive power and imagination of all concerned in this endeavor may, as much as Harnoncourt’s lusher orchestra of 1977, raise critical eyebrows in the historically informed community. Surely this is NOT how opera singers sounded in the 17th century! Why, they’re supposed to all have small, neat, pointed voices like Emma Kirkby and Stephen Varcoe! To which I will ask them the same question that legendary radio comedian Jack Pearl, as Baron Munchausen, used to ask his announcer when he doubted the Baron’s fanciful tales: “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” I think too many of the HIP crowd think that this style was set by British or German musicians. They tend to forget that Monteverdi, his musicians and his singers, were all Italians, and Italians—except for when they sing their church music—are emotionally demonstrative performers. (For that matter, folks, so were the Greeks.) One particular touch that I really loved: when Minerva makes her entrance to sing about “dear youth,” she literally dances to the music played by the orchestra!
A special treat in this performance is to hear the young Jonas Kaufmann in the important role of Telemaco, Ulysses’s son. One scarcely thinks of modern-day Kaufmann as being able to sing this sort of music, yet here his flexibility in the Baroque runs is smooth and well integrated into the voice. But I have to say Rudolf Schasching in the role of Iro was so funny, and so good, that he practically stole the show when he was on.
This performance takes its place quite proudly beside John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording of L’incoronazione di Poppea (DG Archiv 447088) and Sergio Vartolo’s recording of L’Orfeo (Brilliant Classics 94373)—both, alas, audio-only—as the finest Monteverdi performances of my experience. My lone complaint about this DVD, albeit a serious one, is that the date of performance is never given, only the year. Nor was the date given in the earlier release. What’s the big secret? I’m sure this tape was combined from a few different performances, as so many videos are nowadays, but you could at least have given us the month in which it was performed. There’s no excuse for this, particularly since Arthaus Musik is a German firm, and the Germans are usually the most precise people on earth.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria by Claudio Monteverdi
Cornelia Kallisch (Mezzo Soprano),
Dietrich Henschel (Bass Baritone),
Martina Jankova (Soprano),
Malin Hartelius (Soprano),
Isabel Rey (Soprano),
Vesselina Kasarova (Mezzo Soprano),
Jonas Kaufmann (Tenor)
Zurich Opera Orchestra
Written: 1640; Venice, Italy
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