Ancient Inspiration:  Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses' When it comes to opera's founding fathers, Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above all the others. Ulysses, one of his three surviving operas, comes to us from Homer's The Odyssey.

Ancient Inspiration:  Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses'

Hear An Introduction To The Opera

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

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Wikimedia Commons

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."

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

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.

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