Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
Barbican, 29 September 2015
The Academy of Ancient Music completed their trilogy of Barbican performances of Monteverdi operas with Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria in what was build as a ‘concert hall staging’, but was as close to a fully-staged opera as you could get without props or scenery. Rather like the recent Monteverdi Choir / London Baroque Soloists production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House, the stage depth was divided into three parts, with the instrumentalists occupying the centre ground. The Gods spent most of their time on the higher level behind the orchestra, with mortals at the front of the stage. Both had forays into the audience, accompanied by rather overdone spotlights brightly illuminating those of the audience sitting near the aisles.
The Prologue featured two singers that would continue to impress throughout the evening: Elizabeth Watts (as Amore and later an extraordinarily expressive and dominating Minerva) and Sophie Junker (Fortuna and later Melanto). Gwilym Bowen also impressed as Eurimaco and Giove. Bass Lukas Jakobski took the roles of Tempo, Nettuno and Antinoo, bringing an air of authority to all three roles. Indeed, the singing of the large cast was excellent throughout, although obviously the focus was on Ulisse and Penelope. The Slovenian mezzo Barbara Kozelj caught the varying moods of Penelope perfectly, her regal bearing having just the right tone (visually and aurally) to repel her various suitors. Keeping her voice to moderate levels was an excellent move, adding to the strength of her character portrayal. Ullise was Ian Bostridge, his emotionally intense and intelligent interpretation reflecting the complex character of the hero. Their final duet was very moving. The cast all sang from memory, generally dressed in black, and in bare feet – as, for some reason, was the conductor Richard Egarr.
The orchestral additions to Monteverdi’s very sparse score (which only indicates three such contributions) were apt and well-placed. The continuo featured two theorbos, harp and three harpsichords which I think was one too many, and not just for volume reasons. Whereas multiple theorbos can, by the nature of their sound, blend well when two or more players freely improvise arpeggios and chords over their given bass note, the sound of a harpsichord is more percussive and direct, meaning that three players improvising their chords can sound rather cacophonous, particularly when one or more of them rather overdoes the blue notes and personal twiddles. I would have liked to have heard an organ/regal in place of one of the harpsichords, not least in the traditional role of delineating the Gods. An additional percussionist, not mentioned in the programme, made a lot of noise on a wind machine and thunder sheet, both of which might have been better placed offstage – and with the benefit of having listened to actual wind and thunder first.
The direction of this staging was by Timothy Nelson and Alexander Oliver, who also sang the delightful cameo role of the rotund Iro, the same role of his Glyndebourne debut in 1973. Long since retired from mainstream operatic singing, he clearly loved every minute of this occasion, as did we. The concert was dedicated to the music critic and writer Andrew Porter, a nice way to honour a reviewer.