Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bending Monteverdi's bow

Fernando Guimarães as Ulisse.  All photos: Clive Grainger.
Few artifacts are more intriguing than the partial masterpiece.

So imagine the tantalizing aura that has long lingered over Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, the Monteverdi opera whose score disappeared for centuries - and once rediscovered, was found to not quite cover the extant libretto (partly for that reason, some scholars doubted the score was by Monteverdi's hand at all).

Gradually, however, the doubters have been silenced, and Il ritorno has returned to the favor it once enjoyed. The piece was penned by the aging composer for the new opera houses of Venice (which were actually the first dedicated opera houses anywhere), where its premiere enjoyed a huge success. After its final bow in 1641, however, Monteverdi's music somehow vanished, although Giacomo Badoaro's libretto survived. Thus the opera was all but unknown until the early twentieth century, after the score resurfaced in Vienna.

Revivals have since become less rare, although last weekend's staging by Boston Baroque still counted as something of an event (I've only seen the opera once before myself). This was only partly because it's hard to over-estimate Monteverdi's contribution to the culture; arguably the father of opera, and certainly one of the greatest composers who ever lived, I'd also add he was probably as deep an influence on Shakespeare as Chris Marlowe (although that's a posting for another day).

But Ulisse also deserves a place in the repertory simply because it offers a surfeit (even in its partial state) of its composer's special genius - although the eloquence of that genius, always subtle, is here so consistently spare as to sometimes seem almost diagrammatic. It's not just that the extant score leaves the orchestration to the imagination; the central section of the opera is also largely given over to the style known as arioso, which lies midway between aria and recitative, and is oft accompanied only by the continuo.

At Boston Baroque, conductor Martin Pearlman generated his own performing version (really a necessity in any case), opening out the early arias for a lightly piping ensemble of strings, recorders and cornetti, and relying heavily on two theorbos (along with harpsichord, organ, guitar and cello) for his continuo group. The theorbos sounded particularly right - a pluck on these long-necked lutes produces the most tender sound in the universe (save for a lover's sigh), and so gave the poignant lines of Monteverdi's arioso a gentle gravity.

Still, it must be said that the meditative pace of both music and libretto (which, like Homer, is structured as a slow chain of episodes), combined with the lean melodic lines, led to a mid-section that steadily lost emotional loft. Pearlman let it be known that he had cut one scene, but I'd argue he could have trimmed more (or found some way to expand the musical texture).  I also felt the material all but requires its original two intermissions, rather than the one Pearlman offered (in a nod perhaps to Joyce's distortion of the story, this came after the reunion with Telemaco).  Still, Pearlman's orchestration at its best conjured a ravishing atmosphere of floating rapture, and the Boston Baroque ensemble played with transparent clarity throughout.

At long last love Fernando Guimarães and Jennifer Rivera as Ulisse and Penelope.

The singing itself rose to an even higher sphere.  Pearlman already has a reputation for bringing remarkable vocal talent to Boston, but this time he outdid himself.  The cast is enormous, and the quality across it was striking - the local lights were among the brightest in town, while the leads were nothing less than superb. The most stunning performance came from Jennifer Rivera as the dolorous Penelope - her part is the longest and most demanding, but Rivera hung onto the sheen of her golden mezzo to the very finish (when she needs it for a sudden burst of joy) - and her emotional performance was just as convincing (even if Penelope's doubt of her returning husband's identity isn't always quite believable). 

As the title hero, Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães was likewise remarkable; his intelligently reserved presence, facility with period convention, and warmly flexible timbre made for an all but ideal Ulisse. He faced stiff competition from his countryman João Fernandes, however, whose bass seemed to plumb oceanic depths as Neptune, while an equally memorable turn came from tenor Marc Molomot, whose dazzling singing as the glutton Iro was actually outshone by his prissily pointed comic performance.

Elsewhere the news was just as good. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey proved poignantly transporting as the allegorical figure "L'Humana Fragilita" (a Renaissance flourish imposed on Homer), while tenor Daniel Shirley, in the minor role of Eurimaco, gave one of those whole-hearted, full-throated performances that for a moment seems to walk off with the whole show.

But really there were too many wonderful performances here to list; the production was an embarrassment of vocal riches. I must also mention, however, Aaron Sheehan's Telemaco, Leah Wool's Minerva, and Sara Heaton's Amore, along with local stars Sonja DuToit Tengblad, Jonas Budris, Ulysses Thomas, and Owe McIntosh - all were dazzling.

The physical production (below) was likewise evocative. Eric Sauter's simple drape and necklace of blocks served as an elegant solution to the constraints of Jordan Hall - while quietly reminding us of the opera's themes of return and restitution, particularly when lit by Linda O'Brien's shifting washes of color.  Charles Schoonmaker's costumes (particularly his gowns) were likewise to die for.  You won't be able to appreciate in future these design achievements, but you will be able to savor the vocal achievements of everybody else - for luckily Boston Baroque will be recording this production later this spring. Smart move. Because I have the feeling this is destined to become known as the standard version of this haunting Renaissance gem.

The cleanly evocative design. Photos: Clive Grainger.

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