Friday, June 12, 2015

Il ritorno d'Ulisse slowly rises at Boston Early Music Festival

 Colin Blazer as Ulisse
In Newton's third law of motion, for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. In proverbial speak, "too many cooks spoil the broth" but oppositely, "Many hands make light work". So, for every wisdom might there be found an equally opposite wisdom? The audience of a Monteverdi opera will discover so - and within them, moral compasses which constantly shift according to what is known at hand, what one is faced with and what duties are expected of oneself.

In Boston Early Music Festival's new production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - part of a trilogy of Monteverdi operas presented with L'incoronazione di Poppea and L'Orfeo created by the same artistic team - the story of Ulisse's long journey home from the Trojan Wars, aided by the gods, his son Telemaco and a friend Eumete to his unerringly faithful queen, Penelope, was told with sumptuous, Monteverdian period theatrical devices and, as it progressed, engaging results.

The Prologue got underway with a prolonged affair of the gods spruiking their opposing wisdoms in the clouds, but the music failed to ignite interest in their words. Then, as Act I commenced with Penelope's subsequent dolorous, wailing and lengthy opening aria, the act dragged further into snores - Penelope might have had suitors of kings longing for her love and competing for her empire but she didn't win friends easily despite mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi's dark vocal suitability.

Minor issues with timing and projection from a few members of the cast weren't assisting. Thankfully, it was the goddess of Wisdom, Minerva, divinely assisted by Mireille Asselin's melodious, golden-edged soprano and buttery low range, who brought relief just before the curtain went down on Act I and a much needed interval.

Mary-Ellen Nesi as Penelope and Laura Pudwell as Ericlea
It seemed that the tasty Monteverdian recipe director and set designer Gilbert Blin brought to the table with L'incoronazione di Poppea seemed to fall flat. I wanted to blame Monteverdi and his team for the night's misfortune but Blin's concept appeared to be having its own 'opposite' reaction. In such sermonising combat that humour found a great home in, Blin's Poppea responded befitting a Venetian Carnivale's entertainments. But Ulisse, premiering a few years earlier than Poppea in the 1639-40 Venice Carnivale season, was struggling to find the same footing.

On the contrary, the same colonnaded trompe l'œil-like set received enhanced scene changes which included the quaint rolling wave action each time Nettuno surfaced. Anna Watkins' soft-hued, elegant Roman costumes and Lenore Doxsee's skilful lighting were even more eye-catching than that achieved in Poppea.

Act II to Act V - with an interval after Act III - passed pleasingly with a momentum that bobbed and rose to unexpected poignancy. In Act III, the festivities planned by the suitors to lift Penelope's spirits struck emotional nerve with sensuous staging to the chorus of "Dame in amor belle e gentil", speaking to Penelope of pleasures to enjoy which cannot be achieved in decrepit old age. Monteverdi's rich musical progression and Giacomo Badoaro's libretto aided the flow but despite more cohesive warmth and power in the singing, the balance between the lighthearted and serious continued to sit with a degree of discomfort.

Zachary Wilder as Telemaco
Tripling with remarkable effect as the god of Human Frailty, as the Greek King of Ithaca, Ulisse, and disguised as an old beggar, Colin Balzer anchored the performance with a well-hewn presence of hulking strength combined with a broad resonant tenor holding tireless sturdiness and dexterity. In a pairing with Mary-Ellen Nesi's stubborn, skeptical, yet calmly postured Penelope, an aching sense of time apart and their unbreakable bond of constant love was felt with real impact. In her ecstatic moment of recognising Ulisse, accompanied by a striking shift between high head and low chest voice, it was gratifying to see Nesi's Penelope finally blessed with a smile and to share their joyful reunion as they sang of the arrival of pleasures and delights to come in "Del piacer, del goder venuto è 'l di".

Tenor Zachary Wilder as Ulisse's son Telemaco brought youthful bravery to his character, matching it with accomplished vocal technique and a thrilling vibrato. Even more impressively, Wilder's lively dynamic tone captured an underlying sense of adventure and sincerity in his character. In duet with Balzer, filial love was most palpably felt in Act III's "Mortal tutto confida e tutto spera".

Danielle Reutter-Harrah as Melanto and Aaron Sheehan as Eurimaco shared a wonderfully relaxed chemistry in finely crafted duet and other notably satisfying performances came from Patrick Kilbride as Iro, a hanger-on of the suitors, Matthew Brook as Nettuno and Christian Immler as Anfinomo, a suitor to Penelope. That many of the cast are alternating in several roles and performing in all three operas in the trilogy is to be praised.

When the beauty and variety of Monteverdi's music escaped during open orchestral passages, the gorgeous playing from the BEMF Chamber Ensemble under musical directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs came to the fore. Concertmaster Robert Mealy's refined violin work especially stood out with brightness.

For me, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria has some structural problems which mar the dramatic rise in the first part of the opera but salvation does come eventually, though I would've liked to see Blin's better, more enlightened hand which was bestowed upon Poppea.

Production photos by Kathy Wittman


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