Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

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COMPOSERS: Monteverdi
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
PERFORMER: Christoph Prégardien, Bernarda Fink, Christina Högman, Martyn Hill; Concerto Vocale/René Jacobs
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901427/9 DDD
L’Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse inhabit very different worlds, one the opulent splendour of the Mantuan court, the other the commercial reality of Venetian public opera.

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Pickett’s extensive programme notes for L’Orfeo reveal not only the remarkable thoroughness of his preparatory researches – ‘I went to Mantua to see for myself…’ – but also how imaginatively he applies them. Finding that L’Orfeo was conceived as if within a galleria in the ducal palace, Pickett makes inspired deductions about the number and positioning of performers and there is a wonderful sense of the space in which they play and sing. Thoughtful pacing holds together potentially fragmented music, while contrasting sections are often united by a common pulse. Recitative is propelled along by ‘keeping the continuo active’.

The courtly extravagance of Monteverdi’s conception is revealed in a kaleidoscope of colours, from rasping, muted trumpets in the opening Toccata to pochettes (miniature violins tuned an octave higher), suggesting bird-song in a pastoral ritornello.

The cast is excellent. It is led by John Mark Ainsley so vocally secure that all his artistry can focus on the fate of the central character in this, one of the greatest love stories of all time. In short, Pickett’s recording of L’Orfeo represents an outstanding marriage of scholarship and practice, creating a definitive and absorbing performance.

Jacobs’s task in Il ritorno was harder. He has enriched the repertory by re-creating a coherent and effective drama from the very incomplete manuscript sources. Again he faces a challenge – to bind together music even more contrasting than in L’Orfeo. The Venetian public wanted tuneful comedy from the minor characters around the epic hero, Ulysses.

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This recording captures the recent production in Montpellier and Tokyo and its vocal scale is for a modern stage. Jacobs’s direction is full of colour and energy and his casting is first-rate. The result is a major contribution to Monteverdi on record. George Pratt