Simple and restrained, but no less beautiful and powerful- as well as musically brilliant
'Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria' is somewhat in the shadow of 'L'Orfeo' and especially 'L'Incoronazione Di Poppea' as far as Monteverdi operas go, but is actually every bit as great an opera as them.
Monteverdi's music is gorgeous, with a masterful connection to the poetry and text and making the characters as human and empathetic as possible, while the opera's story is intense, passionately youthful, poignant and wise, not as static as some early music operas are.
Although the DVD competition is small (only five or six productions available of 'Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria' if remembered correctly), all of them are great in their own way. First choice goes to the Jean Pierre Ponnelle-directed production, but this Adrian Noble-directed production from Provence is one of the better ones available.
Visually, it's quite effective. The costumes may not be the most authentic but they are not ugly nor do stick out like a sore thumb in a bad way. The set is neither over-complicated or simplistic and made more interesting by the very dynamic and strikingly varied use of lighting. The production is well-served on DVD, with one really able to survey the whole of the action while connecting properly with the more intimate parts as well as being able to fully enjoy the full impact of the music. There is a bit of stage noise, mostly the treading about on sand, but it didn't get too distracting to me.
Noble's directing is kept simple and restrained, but the storytelling is still compelling, tense and moving. Noble is not always consistent to me, sometimes he does a great job, personally really enjoyed his Met 'Macbeth' a couple of years ago, but sometimes he takes on a concept and doesn't do enough with me, like his 'Alcina'. This is a case of him putting Monteverdi and the drama of the opera first, with nothing irrelevant, distasteful, static or done for gratuitous shock value. One has seen complaints for the nudity, actually it's only in one scene, is dimly lit and not overt or irrelevant at all.
Musically, the production is just brilliant all round. With an emphasis on refined expression and understanding of the period style, there is a lot of energy and sensitivity in the orchestral playing as well as a wide range of colours and texture. As always William Christie's conducting is sympathetic to the drama but also alert to it, everything has room to breathe but when scenes need to come alive they do not fail to do so.
The performances, vocally and dramatically, are pretty much spot on, again with a real grasp of the early music style, so things are less operatic, and there is a real sense of refinement, plus everybody can act. It is very easy to identify with Marijana Mijanović's beautifully dark-toned and dignified Penelope and with Kreimir picer's very tenderly sung and sympathetically characterised Ulysses. Robert Burt brings a great combination of pathos and humour, and Katalin Károlyi oozes with sensuality. Cyril Auvity and Olga Pitarch also give standout performances.
Overall, a restrained production powerfully done and brilliantly performed. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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