Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker



Posted by leonardrosmarin on February 20, 2018 at 2:35 PM

For the casual opera goers, a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria might seem like a very redoubtable challenge. It was first performed in 1640 and is not composed in the kind of musical language with which they are familiar. It would probably be the equivalent of inviting an agnostic friend to attend an early morning Sunday church service whereas he or she might feel that they could spend their time much more profitably in bed. But that would be a most unfortunate reaction. The libretto by Giacomo Badoaro is inspired by one of the most exciting narratives in Western civilization, The Odyssey, written by the ancient Greek bard Homer. And the music captures eloquently the powerful drama of the story as well as evoking complex characters with whom we can easily identify in our 21st century. I would like to concentrate on these two aspects now.

To my everlasting shame, I must confess that I had never read The Odyssey before being invited by Opera Atelier to present this pre-performance chat. As soon as I plunged into it, however, I was as hooked and enthralled as a teenager watching his first Star Wars movie. The hero, Odysseus, or Ulisse in the opera, goes through adventures as hair raising as any that Luke Skywalker lives through, if not more so. He encounters witches, nymphs and cyclopes. He journeys to the land of the dead. With his shrewd, fast-witted mind and quick-tongue, he outsmarts all of the terrors in his path as he strives for a decade to reach his home after the sack of Troy. He drags his crew bodily away from the island where the inhabitants gorge themselves on the memory-wiping, pleasure-giving lotus; he withstands the enticing song of the Sirens, who strive to lure him to his death, by having himself lashed to the mast by his crew, whose ears he has stopped with wax. He outwits the glamorous enchantress Circe, who turns his men into pigs. He steers his ship between the man-eating, many-headed Scylla and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. He is the original unlikely survivor, the man who always struggles free from the car crash and walks clear of the wreckage just as the flames are spewing out. And I must say that Ulisses' victory over the suitors who had been tormenting his wife Penelope for many years was as thrilling as the best Hollywood western-style shoot outs. The only difference is that instead of guns, the hero and his supporters used arrows, spears and swords to slaughter the enemy. And one should remember that Homer invented this confrontation thousands of years before Hollywood existed!

The universe in which Ulysses moves is filled with disquieting, frightening presences called the gods. The latter wield terrifying power, and often wreck vengeance on fragile mortals for the most irrational of reasons. They may be omnipotent but they are not necessarily loving. In fact, they can be cruelly and unjustly vindictive. The god Neptune wants to destroy Ulysses because the latter blinded his son Polyphemus. What Neptune conveniently forgets is that this son of his is a repulsive, sadistic S.O.B. who thoroughly deserved the punishment the Greek hero meted out to him. This same mysterious, dangerous atmosphere prevails in the opera until the goddess Minerva, who is unswervingly supportive of Ulysses, persuades Jupiter and Neptune to finally allow the Greek hero to enjoy his hard-won, newly found happiness.

But The Odyssey bowled me over for another, more important reason. It affected me deeply. It denounces the murderous insanity of war, and describes the excruciating pain the war veteran experiences when he attempts to reinsert himself into civil life after a lengthy absence from it. Claudio Monteverdi and his skillful librettist, Giacomo Badoaro, express these issues admirably. Since they were creating an opera, however, they couldn't possibly encompass the whole complex scope of Homer's epic poem. They very wisely and judiciously concentrated on the final, crucial chapters (Chapters 13-23) in the text, namely Ulisse's return to his kingdom in Ithaca after twenty years of wandering, his vanquishing of his greedy, cynical rivals, and his extremely moving reunion with his wife, Penelope, when they joyfully discover that their love for one another has triumphed over the ravages of time and the cruelty of fate. I would like to dwell on the trajectories of their lives as conjured up in the opera. For most of the opera, their destinies seem to unfold separately until the final act when Penelope, finally overcoming her distrust, realizes that her desperately longed-for husband has returned to her for good.

When one listens to the Prologue, though, it is hard to imagine that Il ritorno d'Ulisse will have a triumphant conclusion. Monteverdi launches his opera with a brief, dramatically charged D minor sinfonia, plunging his performers and audience into the center of the drama's emotional and thematic concerns. The use and reuse of this sinfonia during the prologue suggests that this instrumental passage is associated with our precarious human condition. Four allegorical figures emerge here, each representing a different aspect of our humanity: L'Humana Fragilità, or Fragile Humanity, Tempo (Time), Amore (Love) and Fortuna (Fortune). L'Humana Fragilità sings an arioso that she will repeat throughout the Prologue with telling variations: "Mortal cosa son io, fattura humana." ( I am a mortal being, fashioned human). L'Humana Fragilità's words and their stark musical setting introduce a sense of pathos within the opening seconds of the vocal writing. The languishing ornaments on the word "humana" which stretch over four bars, suggest humanity's painful vulnerability. This vulnerability is underscored further by her three adversaries, Tempo, Amore, and Fortuna. They all boast about the nefarious power they can wield over a helpless humanity. Tempo is the ultimate destroyer of mankind. Amore is irrational and capricious, and Fortuna is irrational and cruel. Yet the opera will show us that despite their human fragility, Penelope and Ulisse will succeed in using Time as a great healer, Love as a source of strength, and will make Fortune do their bidding.

But before we chart the spiritual and moral triumphs of our protagonists, I should emphasize the importance of the whole constellation of secondary characters surrounding them. They perform a very crucial function in the opera. By their very presences they sharpen the focus on the two main characters. They either enhance the stature of Penelope and Ulisse by their unconditional commitment to them, or throw the heroes' virtues into even more striking relief in contrast to their rather unattractive natures. In depicting these personages, Monteverdi reveals himself as a democrat in the Shakespearean sense. They do not appear as stock, two-dimensional characters. They are living, breathing human beings with wills of their own.

The virtuous ones who win our sympathies from the start are Penelope's loyal, elderly maid Ericlea, Eumete the old shepherd, and Telemaco, the son Penelope bore when Ulisse was fighting in the Trojan war. Telemaco had never seen his father before the latter's return to his homeland. Ericlea had recognized Ulisse despite his disguise as an aged beggar. She had noticed the scar on his shoulder when he was taking a bath. She never mentioned this to Penelope because Ulisse had sworn her to secrecy. But when Ericlea sees Penelope persist in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the hero appearing before her is indeed her long-lost husband, Ericlea breaks her vow of silence to ensure her mistress' happiness. Eumete has an immense decency and a stainless steel-like integrity that saved him from being corrupted all the time that his master, Ulisse, was in exile. The music he sings when Ulisse, disguised as a vagabond, promises him the imminent return of his former king, is one of the opera's most beautiful passages. It radiates Eumete's gentle humanity.

As for Telemaco, how could he not inherit the lofty traits of his parents? Both Monteverdi and Homer agree that the spiritual DNA of a hero can never be irreversibly contaminated. When father and son meet for the first time, Telemaco's ascending vocalization on "O" in his phrase "O padre sospirato!" (O longed-for father!) is disarming in its frank suggestion of emotional release. The two tenors, father and son, sing a love duet almost as affecting as the later reunion of Ulisse and Penelope. Seldom in the ensuing operatic heritage has the filial relationship been portrayed with such tenderness. Of course, being a very young man, Telemaco can be temporarily blinded by sensual attraction. After his return from Sparta during a voyage in search of his lost father, Telemaco relates to his mother his encounter with Helen, the Greek woman whose face launched the thousand ships that eventually led to the destruction of Troy. Still dazzled by her beauty, he exclaims with impetuous youthful enthusiasm, "The beautiful Greek woman bears in her lovely face all the excuses for the Trojans' sins." Here Monteverdi conjures up through his music the ferocity of newly awakened adolescent ardor, when sensuality can rise to a point of religious exhilaration. But Penelope sets him straight immediately. She will not stand for Telemaco's naive praise for the woman who led to so much sorrow, including her own. "Ché mostro è quell'amor che nuota in sangue", she says, "What a monster is that love that swims in blood." She disabuses her son, rebukes him, and he abides by her judgment.

In comparison to these noble spirits, the other secondary characters do not hold up very well. Melanto and Eurimaco are prime examples. Melanto is one of Penelope's female attendants. Although ostensibly devoted to her mistress, she is working in favour of the latter's unwanted suitors. Eurimaco, her lover, an ethically challenged and rather cold-blooded hypocrite, is a servant attached to the degenerate troops of suitors who have encroached upon the Ithacan court in Ulisse's absence. Melanto strives to undermine her mistress's resolve by insisting that for her own emotional self-preservation she should stop mourning her husband's disappearance and start living again by playing the game of love. "No one looses in love who plays out the game," she insists. She is quite vivacious and smart at times, but remains something of an airhead, too. She is too superficial a character to even remotely comprehend the depth of her mistress' commitment to her husband. I'm convinced that if she were in Penelope's situation, not only would she choose one of the suitors as her spouse, but she would probably try them all out in advance to determine which one would provide the most comfortable fit.

As for the suitors themselves, it would be difficult to find a more despicable band of creeps. Monteverdi's genius consists in giving them exactly the kind of music that conjures up their lawless characters. Antinoo, the ringleader, is a bass; Anfinomo is cast as a tenor, and Pisandro is an alto. These three men menacingly surround Penelope. The words they sing vividly suggest their corruption, duplicity and latent violence. They are arrogant, self-absorbed, self-righteous, and delusional, believing that an accident of birth makes them intrinsically superior to people of humble origins like Eumete, who is worth infinitely more than they are. Yet they are craven cowards. At one point, they seriously contemplate murdering Telemaco to improve their chances of snaring Penelope. But when they catch sight of Jupiter's eagle flying above them, their bravery collapses. The music they then sing suggests three completely deflated fools reduced to palpably chattering terror. Having failed as assassins, they try to seduce Penelope with sumptuous presents. Of course this stratagem doesn't work either. If anything, her contempt for them becomes even stronger.

Although living daily under these harrowing threats, Penelope maintains a majestic, queenly presence. She is the embodiment of wounded dignity. Her immense love for her husband, Ulisse, gives her the strength to endure. But this love in turn causes her excruciating emotional pain. She wills herself never to give up the hope of being reunited with him again. Nevertheless, as time moves forward inexorably, the doubts she entertains about Ulisse ever returning to his kingdom and his beloved wife gnaw at her more and more, causing unspeakable anguish. By some singular paradox, this anguish only serves to intensify the love she bears her husband and strengthens her resolve to remain unassailable against all threats. The sorrow imprinted on her personality is evident in the heartrending lament she sings in the first scene of the first act. Penelope narrrates the story of Helen and of Ulisse's departure to punish her adultery, a narration portrayed by bold recitative declamation suggesting Penelope is a woman of unshakable moral conviction. The unfairness of her situation, the chaste wife suffering "because of the crime of others," reenergizes the iterative note patterns and the sighing-figure cadence on the words "Per l'altrui fallo condannata innocente" (Though innocent, I am condemned to suffer.)

As her longing for Ulisse increases in intensity, so too does the lyrical impulse of her declamation: "Ogni partenza attende desiato ritorno" (Every departure attends on a desired return). The abrupt leap from G to B-flat on "desiato" (desired) is as simple as it is striking. Desire is truly the operative element in Penelope's character, and the setting of this word lifts her musical discourse to a new level of expressiveness. It serves to launch the first of Penelope's two lyric refrains, "Tu sol del tuo tornar perdesti il giorno" (You alone have lost your day of return). Lost in her reverie of a happier future, she imagines Ulisse's return as an integral part of nature's cycle. Just as tranquility returns to the sea, the breeze to the meadow and dawn to the land, one day, perhaps, her beloved husband will come home again. For all the human and divine forces arrayed against Human frailty, this opera--like Homer's epic before it--will offer deliverance.

Penelope's ability to love unconditionally and to continue hoping even against all reasons for hope give her the courage to confront her aggressive suitors in the second act. Their melodic vigor is matched by Penelope's feisty aria response, "Non voglio amar, no, no, ch'amando penerò." (I don't want to love, no, no, for love is painful.) The repeated "no" signal her regal, dignified refusal with a descending five-note scale. Perhaps the idea of a contest which her three suitors would enter in order to win her hand and her kingdom occurs to her as a way of getting rid of them permanently. It is, of course, the kind of competition in which all three of them would be disqualified. She orders Melanto to bring the mighty Ulisse's bow, the very one that enabled him to show his incomparable prowess as a warrior. She then informs her three suitors that the one who succeeds in stringing this bow will have her hand in marriage and inherit Ulisse's realm. What inspires her to think of this contest? Is it the presence of Minerva, Ulisse's godly protector? Is it the presence of Ulisse himself in his disguise as the old beggar? One senses a growing sympathy on the part of Penelope for him. Does some trans-rational intuition lead her to believe that this ragged vagabond might indeed be her champion?

In any event, the stratagem works beautifully. None of the three succeed in stringing the bow. They are way beyond their depth. But Ulisse in his disguise as the beggar accomplishes this task effortlessly. Whereupon he immediately slaughters his rivals, thereby ridding his wife of these dangerous enemies and reclaiming his kingdom.

Now that we have Penelope and Ulisse sharing the same physical space together after twenty long years, let's return to the first act of the opera where the long-lost warrior finally comes home. Monteverdi and his librettists Badoaro construct Ulisse's character the same way they do Penelope's. They depict him as a larger-than-life embodiment of courage and constancy. Yet he remains profoundly human to the extent that he is capable, like his beloved wife, of suffering severe emotional pain. This is obvious in his first appearance in Scene 7 of Act I. The generous Phaeacian sailors have just brought him, still in a deep sleep, to the shores of Ithaca. They, of course, will be punished by Neptune for having aided an enemy. They and their ships will be transformed into stone.

As he wakens from slumber, his music betrays emotional turmoil. This can be heard in the steady climb of his vocal line from the bottom to near the top of its compass in "Chi fece in me, chi fece il sempre dolce e lusinghevol sonno ministro di tormenti?" (Who causes my sweet and gratifying sleep always to change into an instrument of torture?) His awareness of betrayal compels his vocal line upward to his fanciful denunciation of sleep as "father of errors" (padre d'errori), but as he meditates on his own supposed culpability in his misfortunes, his voice sinks down again, mirroring his self-disgust. In his anguish he even accuses his generous Phaecian friends of having dumped him off on some strange shore, thus condemning him to a continuation of his misery.

Fortunately, the goddess Minerva will remain unswervingly loyal towards him and will enable him to regain his kingdom. Now how should we sceptical if not cynical people of the 21st century interpret the presence of this goddess by his side as his champion? We can view Minerva as the metaphor for the hero's intrepidness, immense strength of character and intelligence, as well as good fortune which has finally aligned itself in his favour after so many years of overwhelming misfortune.

Ulisse disguised himself as a bedraggled beggar in order to move around in his kingdom unnoticed and to exploit the element of surprise when confronting his adversaries. Yet even when he appears in the final scene in normal attire as the legitimate king, in a way that his wife will have no trouble recognizing him, her distrust, fed by two decades of bitter disappointment, still prevents her from rushing into his arms. It is as though her scepticism, intensifying her love for Ulisse over two decades, is preventing her from responding to him, even though she appears deeply affected by his presence. Only when he describes the embroidered cloth with the image of the goddess Diana she would place over their bed, is Penelope finally convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now the floodgates of her long-repressed emotions open wide, and she joins Ulisse in one of the most rapturous, life-affirming love duets in the whole operatic literature.

Ulisse initiates the duet, singing a lyrical phrase, "Sospirato mio sole" (My longed-for sun). Penelope responds, "Rinnovata mia luce! ("My renewed light). They sing a gentle minor key tune with solo and overlapping lines that changes the emotional temperature from extroverted rapture to a more private, glowing tenderness, and the duet ends in a climate of radiant confidence.

You can understand now why Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, one of the very first real operas ever composed, is considered one of the finest ever written. It has everything: a very strong dramatic pulse, larger-than-life protagonists who remain credible human beings, engrossing secondary characters, and music that conjures up the drama with a visceral impact and immediate intensity that words alone could never muster. So, just like the child in a television commercial for Italian pasta, I entreat Opera Atelier, "More Monteverdi, please!"

Until next time...

Leonard Rosmarin

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1 Comment

Reply Opera Lover
4:59 PM on February 25, 2018 
You're right on target, Léo, as usual. A splendid job of making this great, relatively unknown masterpiece accessible to the average opera goer.