Claudio Monteverdi´s three extant operas are the earliest masterpieces of the genre we have. The composer lived long enough (1567-1643) to start as a Renaissance creator and end as a full-blown Baroque. His first opera, "Orfeo" (1607), represented a giant step forward compared to the initial operas of Peri and Caccini (1597-1600). It is a real musical tragedy that only the marvelous Lament from "L´Arianna" has survived of the next ten operas he wrote between 1608 and
The work of a 74-year-old composer, "Ulisse" is an astonishingly imaginative and fresh opera, almost on a par with "Poppea". We only have a manuscript copy of "Ulisse" in
"Ulisse" was originally premiered at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, either in 1641 (Grove´s Dictionary in the 1954 edition) or 1640 (Claudio Ratier in the hand programme of BAL), which had opened in 1637 as the first opera house in history opened for the general public. There was a Bologna version a few months later with some changes. Giacomo Badoaro´s libretto is based on Homer´s "Odyssey".
Baroque operas of those times have skeleton scores, just the melody line and the bass. The musical director of the BAL presentation, Juan Manuel Quintana, did "Ulisse" with René Jacobs in 2006 and certainly the Argentine conductor had a good model; although he did some things differently, his options were always in the style and well integrated. He used string quintet, flutes, "cornetti" (wooden trumpets), theorbos (archlutes), dulcian (bassoon-like), harpsichord and viola da gamba. His group is called I Febiarmonici and sounded splendid apart from very minor details. Quintana added some pieces by Rosenmüller and Kindermann. The opera lasted about 2 h 45´. One role was substituted: Euriclea, Ulysses´ nurse, disappeared and Melanto, Penelope´s maid, took her place.
Badoaro´s text is generally very good, but with one reservation: the climax comes at the end of the Second Act, when Ulysses kills the three Pretenders; if the love duet of Ulysses and Penelope had been added there, the drama would have ended satisfactorily. As it is, the protracted Third Act is unnecessary: a superfluous comic number for Iro the glutton is followed by several attempts to convince Penelope that Ulysses is indeed who he claims to be. So much of the music is beautiful that it´s hard to choose, but I especially like Penelope´s lament and Ulysses´duet with his son Telemaco.
The vocal level was very high, in fact up to the best European standards in at least five instances: Ulysses, Telemaco, Penelope, Eumeo the shepherd and the God Jupiter. In my recordings Ulysses is taken by tenors, but it sounds splendid in a high baritone such as Víctor Torres (the same happened in "Orfeo" back in 2002), who was in top form. Franco Fagioli´s countertenor has grown a lot and is now full-voiced; he sings with style, taste and resounding highs. Evelyn Ramírez was a severe but expressive Penelope, sometimes bursting with anger but never losing her line. Eumeo was sensitively sung by Carlos Ullán, very refined and with lovely timbre. And Gustavo Zahnstecher was brilliant and accurate as Jove.
I confess to some disappointment with María Cristina Kiehr, a specialist of this repertoire; her voice has lost beauty and top; although as Fortuna and Minerva she had fine moments, sometimes her singing went quite awry. Oreste Chlopecki did three parts: Neptune, Antinous (one of the Pretenders) and Time in the allegorical Prologue; he has the deep low tones required although his phrasing can be rough. Jaime Caicompai was in very good voice as Eurimaco. He did a torrid love scene with a nice-sounding and good-looking Pilar Aguilera as Melanto (she also sang Juno). I didn´t much like the prancing and mincing of the other Pretenders, Damián Ramírez and Pablo Pollitzer, although the former did well as Human Fragility in the Prologue. Osvaldo Peroni wildly exaggerated his Iro the glutton, leaving little music to appreciate. Nadia Szachniuk, a new name to me, was correct as Love. Three Choruses (of Phaeacians, in Heaven, at Sea) were sung by generally accurate solo voices. Quintana led voices and instruments with the fine authority of a true connoisseur.
Of the production the good point was the stage design: a huge tree opened up to show Penelope´s Palace, well-made in several levels (Alejandro Bonatto and Jerónimo Basso). But Bonatto, after a plausible First Act, grossly mismanaged the rest, with tasteless homo- and heterosexual goings on in full view of Penelope, and completely botched killing of the Pretenders. The dress code according to costume designer Sofía Di Nunzio varied from Pseudo-Greek to Renaissance to formal contemporary. Lighting by Gonzalo Córdova and choreography by Cecilia Elías were neuter in effect. But the total balance of the night was positive and we certainly have to thank BAL for completing the Monteverdi trilogy.
For Buenos Aires Herald