WORKS: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
PERFORMER: Kobie van Rensburg, Christine Rice, Cyril Auvity, Joseph Cornwell, Umberto Chiummo, Juan Sancho, Xavier Sabata, Ed Lyon, Hanna Bayodi-Hirt, Robert Burt, Marina Rodriguez-Cusi, Terry Way, Claire Debono, Luigi De Donato, Sonya Yoncheva; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie dir. Pier Luigi Pizzi (Madrid, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: 33641
In 1641 Monteverdi made this masterpiece based on Homer’s Odyssey for a public opera house in Venice. It has more characters than you can shake a stick at – presumably one reason why William Christie chose to direct it from the harpsichord – so it needs a cast that has strength in depth.
Luckily, these performers from the 2009 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid are superb. Christine Rice gives us a finely-paced Penelope, full of complexity beyond the merely stoical, and with a dark voice that signals restrained fury as well as painful neglect.
The South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg (Ulisse) is expertly alert to nuances of Giacomo Badoaro’s text; however sometimes the fast tempos force him to emphasise the light lyricism of his voice rather than the gravitas of the old character.
Among the other performers Claire Debono deserves special mention as Minerva; she can act not only with her body but with her voice and her eyes, and makes Monteverdi’s music for this character thrilling.
Several DVD versions of this work are now available (including another by Christie from Aix-en-Provence, reviewed June 2004), but this is the best. The staging, direction and costumes are elegant, always adding a layer of explanation; the lighting is atmospheric but never murky; and the sound is clear and resonant.
Above all, this production shows pace, coherence and understanding, and (something that still needs to be said in relation to Monteverdi operas) it presents all of the surviving music. Anthony Pryer