Gardiner’s Monteverdi cycle continues with a noble and comical “Ulisse”

Sat Oct 14, 2017 at 2:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

John Eliot Gardiner conducted Monteverdi's "Il ritorono d'Ulisse in patria" Friday night at the Harris Theater. File photo: Sim Canetty Clarke

John Eliot Gardiner conducted Monteverdi’s “Il ritorono d’Ulisse in patria” Friday night at the Harris Theater. File photo: Sim Canetty Clarke

Of Claudio Monteverdi’s three surviving operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is the least often performed. The Return of Ulysses to his Fatherland lacks the linear dramatic immediacy and concision of L’Orfeo and the Shakespearian scope and grandeur of L’incoronazione di PoppeaThe rather discursive libretto uneasily balances the serious main narrative of the long-traveling Ulysses and his arduous journey home to his faithful wife Penelope with broad comedy that is almost vaudevillian.

While it may not be the greatest of Monteverdi’s operas, there is much wonderful music in Ulisse, as was shown by the rich and sympathetic performance given Friday night at  the Harris Theater with John Eliot Gardiner leading the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the centerpiece of his “Monteverdi 450” series.

There is an Upstairs Downstairs quality to Ulisse with the main narrative of the long-separated royal couple contrasted with various rustics and comical figures. Ulisse also has some of the most memorable insults in opera: “Presumptuous Plebeian!” and “Man of ample girth, I will destroy you!” and my favorite, “Nothing is safe from my teeth.”

The house wasn’t sold out as for the previous evening’s L’Orfeo, but it was still packed; another Orfeo,  tenor Dmitry Korchak, was among those in attendance before his final performance in Lyric Opera’s Orphee et Euridice on Sunday.  This Ulisse spanned 3-1/2 hours (including one intermission) and the audience appeared just as involved and attentive throughout. “People must have had larger bladders back then,” said one exiting patron at the end of the long evening.

As Ulisse, Furio Zanasi made a noble and dignified hero. If there is some wear on the Italian baritone’s voice, it’s not inapt for a man who has spent twenty hard years at war and away from home. It was exhilarating to hear Zanasi toss off rapid arias in the kind of flawless, idiomatic Italian that only a native can deliver. His subtle acting as the world-weary hero gave the final scene an extra resonance and gravitas.

Marianna Pizzolato as Penelope brought the only doubt about casting so far in this series. While she sang with a refined and velvety tone, the Italian mezzo’s timbre was wanting in color and expressive nuance, and failed to open up with greater volume at crucial moments. Admittedly Penelope is something of a thankless role, requiring Ulisse’s faithful wife to suffer nobly for three hours. Yet Pizzolato proved a decidedly bland presence dramatically, bringing little variety or personality to her portrayal. Even in the opera’s climactic moment when Penelope realizes it is indeed Ulisse who has finally returned to her, Pizzolato’s expressionless features showed neither joy nor any emotion at all.

There was nothing bland about the performance of Krystian Adam as Ulisse’s son, Telemarco. After tackling the demanding title role of L’Orfeo the previous evening, the Polish tenor showed no hint of fatigue and was just as terrific, bringing the same vibrant vocalism and fizzing dramatic involvement.

In an ironic twist on her Euridice in L’Orfeo, Hana Blazikova on Friday was Minerva, who guides Adam’s Telemarco to meet his father. The Czech soprano once again sang with pure tone and made a fetching and compelling witchy woman.

As the suitors harassing the distraught Penelope, Gianluca Buratto, Michal Czerniawski and Gareth Treseder proved an amusing and well-sung trio of amorous goofballs. It was another busy night for bass Buratto who was a triple threat, also singing the roles of Neptune and Time.

Anna Dennis was delightfully chic and sassy as Melanto and, with Zachary Wilder as her partner Eurimaco, made a charmingly randy contrast to Ulisse and Penelope as the low-born but happier lovers. Francisco Fernandez-Rueda was inspired once again, as the shepherd Eumete, Ulisse’s faithful friend and protector.

As the gluttonous Iro, Robert Burt was a hilarious scenery-chewing hoot. Singing with an ample character tenor, Burt owned the stage with his over-the-top portrayal of the cowardly villain, even leaning on Gardiner’s shoulder and, at one point, lurking next to the orchestra’s harpist who bashed him on the head with her score to shoo him away.

The Monteverdi Choir, again bolstered at times by the cast principals, delivered full-blooded ensemble vocalism and vivid characterizations as needed.

John Eliot Gardiner conducted this longer opera sitting on a high stool at the left center on the stage. Once again he showed an innate sympathy and understanding of this music, which flowed naturally throughout the performance; the glowing quiet coda of the reunited lovers elicited a few romantic sighs from the audience. Apart from a fleeting lapse from one of the recorder players, the English Baroque Soloists had another superb night, bringing out all the sonic hues, expressive variety and imagination of Monteverdi’s kaleidoscopic score. 

“Monteverdi 450” concludes with L’incoronazione di Poppea 1 p.m. Sunday at the Harris Theater. harristheaterchicago.org

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