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Monday, April 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

Ulysses Returns to BAM

Claudio Monteverdi’s three surviving operas present classical myths and history in a potent musical and dramatic form. Most of his operatic output is lost; the three works that remain are being presented by three companies throughout the month of April at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Any performance of these operas is an imaginative exercise, both musically and dramatically, but none more so than Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, Monteverdi’s masterpiece of 1640. I attended the first of six performances of Ulisse by Les Arts Florissants and the Aix-en-Provence European Academy of Music, conducted by William Christie and directed by Adrian Noble. The series continues with L’Incoronazione di Poppea, presented by the Dutch National Opera and ends with Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo, in a production by the Chicago Opera Theater.

Given the number of Monteverdi’s operas that are entirely lost to us, we should be grateful that Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria survives at all. It was thought lost until 1881, when a manuscript in the Vienna State Library was posited to be authentic. This assertion was immediately disputed, some claiming that the Vienna manuscript might be termed “school of Monteverdi,” since the composer was in his seventies at the time and responsible for an almost unbelievable quantity of music. Other textual problems abound: the libretti that were printed for various performances do not match the Vienna manuscript. By contrast, the 1607 Orfeo, commissioned by Prince Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua, exists in a performable version that even lists the instruments used in the original stagings. Such helpful guides are completely lacking for Ulisse, the Vienna source providing only the barest chordal accompaniments in some sections.

Thus, performances of Ulisse vary wildly. The succession of editions of Ulisse over the decades offers a compendium of changing musical tastes: distinguished Italian composers Gian Francesco Malipiero and Luigi Dallapiccola have both tried their hands, as have the French composer Vincent d’Indy and conductor Raymond Leppard. The BAM performances utilized an edition by Alan Curtis, although the musical sensibility in command was clearly that of harpsichordist and conductor William Christie, the founder of Les Arts Florissants. Christie’s extraordinary ensemble, founded in 1979, attains the highest level of musical virtuosity (not by any means a given in period-instrument ensembles) with close attention to linguistic and theatrical values. All were superbly on display in Ulisse.

Any production of Ulisse stands or falls on its ability to communicate the drama through recitative, the rhythmically free setting of text in which music can add intensity to the librettist’s words but lyrical melody is eschewed. This poses a challenge for both performers and audiences: Monteverdi’s ability to alter the musical language in a heartbeat to follow dramatic changes in the text or to delineate character must find its equivalent in quicksilver musical changes. Coordination between stage and pit must be both instantaneous and intuitively felt, and it was in this performance: the action seemed to unfold organically on the stage, accompanied by the ever-resourceful orchestra as with one voice. The superb acoustics and welcoming design of BAM’s Harvey Theater were part of this delight: even the lighter-voiced singers could project easily while singing directly upstage, and every delicate nuance of the continuo accompaniment told. With the instrumentation of the continuo largely in Christie’s hands, the listener’s ear is constantly challenged and refreshed by his choices. And since this lightly accompanied music constitutes the majority of the score, the conductor’s imagination can sustain the listener through what would otherwise be dry stretches.

The libretto is faithful to Homer’s text, given the inevitable compressions and deletions required by opera. Librettist Giacomo Badaoro’s most unusual decision was to center the action on Penelope, rather than on the eponymous hero. This is clear right at the outset. After a brief prologue, Penelope holds the stage, largely alone, expressing her grief over Ulisse’s 20-year absence in a tour-de-force monologue almost entirely composed of recitative. Yugoslavian-born Marijana Mijanovic possesses the dusky earth tones appropriate for the role but lacks the dramatic range to fully embody this complex, demanding character. In Monteverdi and Badaoro’s hands, Penelope is portrayed as a woman of great intelligence as well as emotional depth. In her expert parrying with the suitors in Act II that will ensure her survival until Ulisse’s return, she must show a queenly ability to maintain power and an absolute sense of her own unshakable position. This Penelope, however, was more apt to resort to an all-purpose mournfulness that in moments of confrontation turned more to peevishness than the moral outrage to which Penelope is entitled.

Ulisse, on the other hand, was powerfully portrayed by Croatian Kresimir Spicer, who, like Mijanovic, was making his US debut with this production. His first scene is as demanding as Penelope’s, beginning with a long, dramatically taxing monologue in which he laments his long exile and curses the Phaecians, whom he believes have left him stranded. Both in this long solo and in his subsequent duet with Minerva, played by the superb Olga Pitarch, Spicer showed real command: Ulisse’s emotional exhaustion and his keen intelligence were both in evidence. Pitarch’s performance went from strength to strength. When she is first disguised as a young shepherd, she rolls on the ground while tossing off vocal ornaments with complete naturalness. When she then reveals herself to Ulisse in her true form, she attains a god-like stature with simple use of gesture and a masterly change of vocal color. Her later appearances in a shimmering silver gown and silver body paint exhibited even more charisma and control: we believed that she was indeed calling the shots. Another believable and vocally adept performer was Cyril Auvity as the youthful Telemaco. Auvity conveyed Telemaco’s adolescent freshness with a lovely, light-timbred tenor voice and exceptionally sensitive music-making.

As the action unfolds, the struggle between the suitors and Penelope heats up. Badaoro portrays the suitors as arrogant and power-hungry; at the first appearance of Zeus’ eagle, however, they show that behind their braggadocio they are cowards. In Noble’s hands, the three suitors were poorly differentiated and unthreatening. They seemed to irritate Penelope rather than terrify her. This confrontation and Ulisse’s revenge are the dramatic cruxes of the work; neither managed to deliver their full dramatic catharsis. Battle scenes often fail on the opera stage. Without the physical resourcefulness of well-trained actors, the director must rely on stage effects to dramatize these violent turning-points. The Pierre Audi production of Ulisse that visited BAM a decade ago managed such an apocalypse in a spectacular show of stage pyrotechnics. Here, the bloodletting was stylized to the point of blandness, leading us into the emotional catharsis of Act III without a sense that revenge was fully achieved.

This magnificent final act revolves around an extended duet for Penelope and Ulisse, a great example of how Monteverdi can be understated and emotionally probing at the same time. Ulisse has thrown off his disguise but is rebuffed by Penelope as a pretender. The ancient nurse Ericlea recognizes Ulisse by the scar she has seen while he is bathing, but even this intervention proves useless. Penelope is too scarred to relent until Ulisse delivers the decisive blow: he describes their marriage in bed in a recitative of amazing tenderness and delicacy. Penelope’s music that follows is her first real aria in the whole opera. Mijanovic rose to this occasion beautifully; her reserve melted away while she threaded her way through this highly elaborate music with a joy in singing that revealed the discipline that had muted her singing throughout the performance. Monteverdi ends the opera with a courageously quiet moment as the lovers settle onto some pillows for a kiss delayed by 20 years. They sing, “Si, si, vita, si, si, core, si, si,” in blissful harmony, Badaoro prefiguring by three centuries the joyous affirmation that James Joyce wrote for another Penelope, “Yes I said Yes I will Yes.”

Brian Zeger is a pianist who has appeared in distinguished concert venues in the United States and Europe, collaborating with artists such as Itzhak Perlman, James Galway, Marilyn Horne, and Kathleen Battle. He is currently on the faculty of The Juilliard School of Music.
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