Maggio Musicale 2021 Review: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

Ottavio Dantone & Robert Carsen Create A Masterful Production

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Monasta)

The Greek gods are a colorful crowd, who enjoy nothing better than involving themselves in the world of Man. Woe betide anyone who is unfortunate enough to attract their attention, whether it be for good or ill; the gods act in their own interests, seeking pleasure and entertainment in all its forms wherever they can find them. They are vain and willful, whimsical, inconsistent, jealous, easily offended, and readily give into their passions, but they can also be creative, loyal, kind, and just. They are in effect representations of human qualities writ large.

Insightful and clear direction 

In his production of “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” for Florence’s Maggio Musicale, the director Robert Carsen established the relationship between Gods and Man by positioning the world of Man as a theatrical entertainment in which the gods intervene to liven things up, although one in which they themselves are also emotionally involved. The scenographer Radu Boruzescu’s staging reflected this by recreating the auditorium of the Teatro della Pergola, in which the gods sit in the middle tier looking down onto the stage where the drama is acted out. In this way, Carsen has created a complex web of observations in which the gods with all their failings are no more than a reflection of the audience itself; do we also not intervene in other people’s lives with fatal consequences, often for purely egotistical reasons? Are we not guilty of hubris, as we foster our god-like complexes? Thus the gods sit in judgment on Man, and we, the audience, sit in judgment on the gods.

There are, however, higher powers that act upon the lives of men and gods alike, over which we feel we can do nothing. During the prologue Amore, La Fortuna, and Il Tempo address the allegorical character Human Frailty. Carsen divided the role of Human Frailty into three parts and had the singers situated amongst the audience, thereby emphasizing that we are all at the mercy of these forces.

At the end of Act two, the entertainment has run its course, the gods have had their fun and dead bodies lie scattered across the stage. In Act three, the gods descend and forgive Man for his insulting behavior and retire. Ulisse and Penelope, having overcome the travails of bad fortune and the many years spent apart, eventually reunite in a faithful, devoted, passionate embrace, which Love’s vicissitudes had been unable to divide. The gods reappear and gather around the couple, quite at a loss as to how Man could have overcome powers they themselves cannot control, in an ending that perfectly reflects the optimistic message of Badoaro’s libretto.

Carsen’s clear reading was as simple, as it was brilliant. It was totally faithful Badoaro’s libretto, yet it managed to put the audience at its heart, in which we were asked to reflect upon our own natures and failings, our relationship with God (or gods), as well as with each other.

Yet, none of it detracted from the narrative, to which Carsen gave a strong, coherent, and compelling presentation, with an energetic forward momentum. Each scene was imaginatively developed, characters were expertly crafted, whilst Boruzescu’s sets and Luis Carvalho’s costumes provided a colorful and interesting staging. This was best exemplified by the final scene of Act two, in which Ulisse slaughters Penelope’s suitors: playing the scene in slow motion, the goddess Minerva, who is carried around the stage, takes each of Ulisses’ golden arrows and thrusts them into the bodies of the suitors. It was a gripping, chaotic, powerfully wrought scene, and one which significantly placed the gods at the center of the carnage.

Dantone, a world-class specialist

The musical side of the production was in the hands of Ottavio Dantone, one of the world’s foremost practicing baroque specialists. For this performance of “Il Ritorno d‘Ulisse in Patria,” he was required to produce a working edition, as Monteverdi’s score is incomplete. The result was an engaging, dramatically centered, and sensitive composition, which blended neatly with Monteverdi’s existing framework, in which he created an array of varied textures and rhythmic sensitivities that successfully aided in the building of the dramatic tension within the scenes. Under his direction, the Accademia Bizantina produced a strong, energetic performance with a pleasing balance that allowed individual instruments to shine. Their playing was precise, vibrant, and always sensitive to the onstage drama.

“Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” requires a substantial cast of 18 soloists and Maggio Musicale’s production assembled a formidable ensemble of rare quality, without any notable weaknesses, in which performances ranged from solid to outstanding. Even the smaller roles were parted by singers who would, and do grace higher profile roles.

Il Tempo, La Fortuna and Amore

The prologue opened with the three forces which wreak such havoc in people’s lives: Il Tempo, La Fortuna, and Amore. They were costumed in the traditional attire of antiquity, signifying their ancient presence, having been present since the dawn of Man’s existence.

Francesco Milanese produced a strong performance in the role of Il Tempo. His measured, attractive, resonant bass catching the attention. La Fortuna was parted by soprano Eleonora Bellocci. Having reviewed her performances a number of times in the past, in which she has always impressed with her bright, sparkling, and lively displays, it was a little surprising to see her in a much smaller role. Although the part gave her fewer opportunities to display her skills, she produced a pleasing performance in which the flexibility of her voice was again in evidence.

Amore was played by countertenor Konstantin Derri, who delighted with his rapid coloratura displays. His monochromatic voice has a beautiful timbre and is ideally suited to playing idealized figures.

Together the voices blended well, creating an interesting array of textures.

The Human Characters with three standout performances

The human characters come from a range of backgrounds and all have very distinctive characters, which Carvalho’s costumes neatly defined. All were dressed in present day attire so that we are able to view them as present day people, in which we can see elements of ourselves reflected.

In the role of Ulisse was the America tenor Charles Workman, who produced an outstanding performance. He possesses a beautifully balanced voice in which there was never an inkling of strain or stress, and his diction was always precise and clear. His technique is superb, which allowed him to move with ease between registers and react smoothly to changes in tempi and dynamic shifts. The voice also has an attractive tone, which could be as expressive as it could be pleasing and easy on the ear. It also has a noble quality and was, therefore, ideally suited to the part. Moreover, Workman has an excellent posture so that when he was dressed in a military uniform, he looked every inch the soldier. Yet, he could change in a second; when he was transformed into an old man, he was stooped and infirm, with little in common with the military man he was to become. Although there were many excellent contributions, his aria in the first act in which he rages at the treachery of the Phaeacians was particularly enjoyable, in which his ability to reach its emotional heart impressed.

The tenor Mark Milhofer was no less impressive in the role of the shepherd Eumete. His use of the voice to characterize the role was wonderful. Every line was crafted with such detail; subtle dynamic inflections, emphases, and colorful accents were applied intelligently to create a living character with real depth. His acting was no less effective. Interactions with Ulisse and with Iro were excellently constructed, their voices combining with a dramatic purpose which enabled the scenes to develop so well.

The third standout performance was that of the tenor John Daszak as the glutton Iro. He produced a versatile performance in which he captured the character’s cowardly, brash, loud, and bullying nature, and really hammed the comedy up for all it was worth, to the extent that he became a totally absurd individual who allowed his belly to determine everything he did and said. Daszak has a strong, well-supported, and securely positioned tenor with the ability to furnish the vocal line with emotional depth and layers of meaning, and successfully communicated Iro’s vulnerability beneath his unpleasant exterior. The success of his performance was illustrated by the fact when he commits suicide it was impossible not to feel sorry for him. And in what was a nice touch he commits suicide by thrusting a knife and fork into his belly.

Contralto Delphine Galou playing the part of Penelope produced a moving portrait. Her opening aria was nicely rendered, in which the subtle movements in the vocal line impressed and the darker colorings of her voice highlighted the depth of her suffering; the light orchestral accompaniment ensured that her voice was perfectly audible. Her phrasing was a delight and her ability to develop her emotions through the voice was excellent. Galou’s one weakness is that she is not particularly strong in projecting her voice, which did become noticeable in the final scenes.

Ulisse’s son Telemaco was parted by tenor Anicio Zorzi Guistiniani. He produced a youthful presentation, full of energy and enthusiasm. His voice has an attractive timbre, which he used skilfully to caress the vocal line, emphasizing the lyrical beauty of his singing in which he captured a naïve quality in the character.

The bass Andrea Petucelli, countertenor James Hall and tenor Pierre-Antoine Chaumien played the roles of the three suitors Antinoo, Pisandro, and Anfinomo. Dressed in brash, tasteless clothes they were a thoroughly dislikable group, real chancers who got what they deserved. They sang and acted well together, supporting each other’s boorish behavior. However, whereas as Petucelli’s Antinoo and Chaumin’s Anfinomo both convinced, singing with vigor and an unpleasant swagger, Hall’s Pisandro was a little out of place; a countertenor just cannot compete in a male group in which high testosterone levels are the dominating factor.

The two servants Eurimaco and Melanto were played by tenor Hugo Hymas and mezzo-soprano Miriam Albano. They brought a youthful, playful element to the drama and related to each other with natural ease. Although Hymas sang well, it was Albano’s strong stage presence that dominated the exchanges. She also put in an excellent singing performance in which she successfully molded her character through the voice, with neatly placed emphasis and coloring. She also displayed a pleasing coloratura.

Penelope’s nurse Ericlea was given a convincing presentation by mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky, who brought depth and understanding to the role, in which she captured the frailty and sympathetic nature of the character with what was a spirited performance.

A stunning performance by Vendittelli leads the way for the gods

 Although all 12 gods were present, only four actually had specified roles. For the most part, they were seated above the stage watching the entertainment on which they commented among themselves. They particularly enjoyed scenes in which one of them intervened, which they then acknowledged with applause or nodding approval. They were dressed in red crushed velvet costumes from the Renaissance period, eluding to the fact that they were a staple subject for theatrical entertainment during Monteverdi’s era, and each carried a golden symbol that represented their character.

Arianna Vendittelli has a truly alluring voice, with a vocal purity that cannot fail to move the emotions. She possesses a strong, bright soprano with a wonderful degree of flexibility, in which the voice can sound as if it is dancing through a part. She has a sparkling coloratura, and the voice can climb with ease She is a singer with a very professional attitude who engages thoroughly with her role, whatever that may be. However, for this performance as Minerva, she moved to a higher level with a dominating portrayal in which her identification with the role was complete, and which the degree of emotional and vocal nuance was exceptional. She made a delightful and playful goddess disguised as a shepherd, and brought a comedic element to the role as she milked the applause from the other gods watching on. In her defense of Ulisse the voice became demanding, imploring, and animated as she pleaded with Giove to intercede with Nettuno to forgive him. It was also an energetic performance in what is a substantial role, which had her descending onto the stage ex-Machina and rampaging around killing Penelope’s suitors.

The baritone Gianluca Margheri proved himself to be an effective Giove, in which he looked and sounded the part. His voice has depth and an attractive timbre, which he employed with sensitivity and expressivity. Singing with apparent ease, the vocal line had a pleasing lyrical quality which gave the appearance of carefree confidence found in people with unchallenged power.

Mezzo-soprano Marina De Liso was parted as Giove’s wife Giunone. A small role in which she performed well.

Guido Loconsolo’s strong, resonant baritone was a perfect match for the vindictive, bad-tempered sea god Nettuno, in which his subtly accented vocal lines nicely captured his display of taking offense. His dark curly hair added to his salty appearance.

This was a performance of the highest standard, which will not quickly be forgotten. On every front, the audience was served up performances of the highest order, from Dantone’s overall management of the musical side of the presentation down to the non-speaking parts of the unnamed extras. Along with Carsen’s masterful direction it made for an excellent evening’s entertainment and an undoubted triumph at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.


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