Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria review – compelling Monteverdi celebration

Colston Hall, Bristol
John Eliot Gardiner’s ad-hoc company of impressive singers and musicians shine in a beautifully realised semi-staging that sounded totally assured

John Eliot Gardiner is celebrating this year’s 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth in the best possible way, by touring concert stagings of all three of the surviving Monteverdi operas with his Monteverdi Choir and the period instruments of the English Baroque Soloists. He has assembled a cosmopolitan company of soloists for his tour, which ranges right across Europe and the US, and visits the Edinburgh festival in August. The only other UK venue so far is Bristol’s Colston Hall; after this Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, L’incoronazione di Poppea and L’Orfeo will follow there next month.

Gardiner has collaborated with director Elsa Rooke on the stagings. There’s no set but the modern-era costumes, credited to Patricia Hofstede – long dresses or suits for the deities, casual clothes for the mortals, a trench coat for Furio Zanasi’s Ulysses – and no props either, not even for Ulysses’ bow, used for the trial of the suitors, which is imitated instead by the arms and body of Penelope (Lucile Richardot), a really clever touch. And on Colston Hall’s platform, with its multiple levels and entrances, there was actually much more scope for movement behind and around Gardiner and the orchestra than there might have been in a more confining, artily designed opera-house set.

Imaginatively staged … Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, at Colston Hall.
Imaginatively staged … Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, at Colston Hall. Photograph: ShotAway

Performed in the original version with a prologue and five acts rather than the three of the revision, there’s well over three hours’ music, with just a single short interval, but every moment of it is totally compelling. Gardiner brings an easy, long-practiced flexibility to the recitative and its fluid switches into arioso and aria, and working with the same group of singers on all three operas seems to be paying enormous dividends. There was total assurance about everything musical and dramatic in the performance, and immaculate diction too, from both the native Italian speakers in the cast and the non-Italians.

Zanasi sets the tone for all this; he gets just the right mix of world-weariness and ardent longing into Ulysses, and his light baritone wraps around the vocal lines perfectly. Richardot is more of an acquired taste; she makes a suitably haughty Penelope, but the rather countertenor-like edge to her contralto does not make her a particularly sympathetic one. Krystian Adam is their son Telemachus, wonderfully touching in the scene in which he is reunited with his father through the agencies of Francisco Fernández-Rueda’s Eumaeus and Hana Blažiková’s sweet-toned, beguiling Minerva.

Just as much thought and care has gone into the smaller roles. Robert Burt makes a real tour de force of Irus’s parody lament aria in the final act; Anna Dennis and Zachary Wilder make a fetching couple as the lovers Melantho and Eurymachus; Gianluca Buratto doubles as a stentorian Neptune and a suitably thuggish suitor, Antinous. Every element in this show, you sense, has been carefully thought out and beautifully realised.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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