Ancient Inspiration:  Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses'



2 min 44 sec
The Beaune Festival's concert version of "Ulysses" was performed at the Basilica Notre Dame in Beaune, France. i

The Beaune Festival's concert version of "Ulysses" was performed at the Basilica Notre Dame in Beaune, France. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons
The Beaune Festival's concert version of "Ulysses" was performed at the Basilica Notre Dame in Beaune, France.

The Beaune Festival's concert version of "Ulysses" was performed at the Basilica Notre Dame in Beaune, France.

Wikimedia Commons

The Hit Single

It takes some convincing, but by the end of the opera Penelope (contralto Sara Mingardo) is finally persuaded that her husband Ulysses (baritone Furio Zanasi) really has come home, setting up their one chance for a love duet. Ulysses begins it, with the words "My Sun Long Sighed For."

The B Side

The final act begins as the drunken outcast Iro (tenor Gian Paolo Fagotto) mourns the three suitors Ulysses has just killed, who had been Iro's only means of support. His monologue is a sputtering send-up of a traditional, early-Baroque lament.

Iro's Lament

6 min 14 sec

Could there really be a single story that's at the root of everything from a popular 21st-century film and a famously challenging modernist novel, to a 1970's rock hit and an early Baroque opera?

The answer is "yes," and it’s a story so old that no one can say when it was actually written.

The film it inspired is the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou, while the rock tune is Steely Dan's "Home at Last." As for the novel and the opera, their titles both give the story's identity away: They're Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland).

The tortuous story of the hero Ulysses comes to us from Homer's The Odyssey, an epic that's been dated as far back as 850 century BC, or perhaps even earlier. Monteverdi's opera is easier to pin down. He completed it in 1640, at a time when opera, as a genre, was so new that it barely had a name.

The birth of opera, in the early 1600s, wasn't an overnight event. It was an evolutionary process, involving many different styles and composers. But when it comes to opera's founding fathers, Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above all the others. His 1607 opera Orfeo is widely regarded as the first truly great opera ever composed, and it's still popular today. His last opera, The Coronation of Poppea, was composed in 1643, the same year he died, and it also makes frequent appearances on modern stages.

The Return of Ulysses is the only other full-scale opera by Monteverdi that survives today, and while it may be less familiar than the other two, it's surely no less beautiful. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance by one of the world's foremost early music ensembles, the Concerto Italiano, with conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini. The vocal stars are baritone Furio Zanasi in the title role and contralto Sara Mingardo as Ulysses' patient wife Penelope, in a production from the International Baroque Opera Festival in Beaune, France.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'The Return of Ulysses'

Monteverdi i

Claudio Monteverdi is considered the founding father of opera as we know it today. The Return Of Ulysses is one of only three of his operas that survive. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons

Claudio Monteverdi is considered the founding father of opera as we know it today. The Return Of Ulysses is one of only three of his operas that survive.

Wikimedia Commons

Who's Who

Furio Zanasi …………… Ulysses
Sara Mingardo ………. Penelope
Gian Paolo Fagotto ……….. Iro
Luca Dordolo ………. Telemaco
Monica Piccinini … Minerva/Melanto
Salvo Vitale …. Antinoo/Time
Anna Simboli …. Juno/Cupid
Andrea Arrivabene … Anfinomo
Jeremy Palumbo …. Pisandro
Raffaele Giordani …. Eurimaco
Gianluca Ferrarini ….. Eumete
Elena Biscuola …….… Ericlea

Concerto Italiano
Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor

Monteverdi's opera begins with a Prologue, featuring a lively discussion between Human Frailty, and the powers of Time, Fortune and Love.

ACT ONE opens in the rooms of Penelope, whose husband Ulysses has gone off to fight the Trojan War. But Troy fell more than ten years ago, and Ulysses still isn't home. Penelope has three suitors vying for her attentions, but she can think only of Ulysses.   Her nurse Ericlea tries to console her, but fails.

We then meet Ulysses, lying asleep on a beach at Ithaca, where the gods Neptune and Jupiter have left him.  As he wakes, the goddess Minerva appears and tells him he is free to return to his wife.  But first, Minerva disguises Ulysses as an old beggar.  That way, he can confront Penelope's three suitors anonymously.  Back at the palace, Melanto tells Penelope to forget Ulysses and take up with one of the suitors, but Penelope refuses.

The scene changes and we see Eumete, a swineherd, arguing with the drunken outcast Iro.  Ulysses arrives, in his disguise as a beggar. Eumete used to work for Ulysses and has remained loyal to him.  But now he doesn't recognize his old boss, and he's concerned about Ulysses' fate.  Ulysses tells him not to worry — his master will soon be back.

As ACT TWO begins, we meet Telemaco, Ulysses' son.  Eumete tells Telemaco that he's met a beggar who claims to have news about Ulysses.  Eumete introduces the two men, but Telemaco doesn't recognize his father.  Then, in a ray of light from heaven, Ulysses is revealed, and the two are reunited.  Ulysses sends Telemaco off to join Penelope, saying he'll be home soon, though still in disguise.

Back at the Palace, the maid Melanto and the shepherd Eurimaco are both amazed at Penelope's continued loyalty to Ulysses, and it's no wonder.  Penelope's three, persistent suitors — Antinoo, Pisandro, and Anfinomo — have all shown up on her doorstep at the same time. Once more, each one tries to win Penelope over.  They all fail.  Eumete then arrives with the news that Telemaco is on his way, and may be bringing Ulysses with him. The suitors plot to kill Telemaco, but an omen warns them against it. Still, they vow to win Penelope no matter what the cost.

Ulysses is in a wooded grove, with the goddess Minerva. She tells him not to worry about the suitors. Minerva says that Penelope herself will come up with the idea that gets them out of the way once and for all.

At the palace, Telemaco assures Penelope that Ulysses will arrive shortly. He does, still in disguise, and with Eumete at his side. They're greeted roughly by the three suitors and their gluttonous sidekick, Iro, who challenges Ulysses to a fight. To everyone's surprise, the old beggar beats Iro easily. Intrigued, Penelope invites this beggar to stick around.

The suitors are still determined that one of them will have Penelope. So she suggests a contest. This idea is actually Minerva's — in true goddess-like fashion, she has planted the notion in Penelope's mind. Penelope has a servant bring in a bow that once belonged to her husband, Ulysses. She says that if one of the suitors can string the bow, she will be his. One by one, the suitors attempt it, but none of them has the strength to string the bow. Ulysses, still in disguise, then suggests that he might give it a try. To everyone's amazement, the old beggar strings the bow easily. He also uses it immediately — killing all three suitors as the act ends.

The suitors' bloody fate sets up the opening of ACT THREE. It's a bravura number for Iro.  Though shunned by everyone else, the suitors kept Iro around for his entertainment value, and they were his only means of support.  Now he mourns their passing in a raucous take-off on the typical, Baroque lament.

With the suitors dead, and Penelope still waiting faithfully for Ulysses, everything seems right for a joyful reunion — but Penelope is grieving. She's promised herself to whomever could string the bow, and she still thinks Ulysses is an unsightly old beggar. Eumete tries to persuade Penelope that this beggar is actually her own husband. She thinks he's lying, and tells him so. Her son Telemaco also tries to convince her, but she won't listen to him, either.

Then, the gods finally decide Ulysses' fate.  They conclude that he has suffered enough and allow him to visit Penelope without his disguise. At first, she still refuses to believe that it's actually him. Even when the nurse Ericlea says that she's seen this man in the bath, and recognized a distinctive scar, Penelope is unsure.  But when Ulysses accurately describes the embroidered cover that was on their wedding bed, Penelope is convinced.  Husband and wife are reunited, and the opera ends with their sensuous duet.



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