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Opera Atelier’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse: the bow and arrows of love, fidelity, and vengeance

Kevin Skelton (Jupiter, above) and Meghan Lindsay (Minerva); Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

Monteverdi had already thrilled the nobility of Europe with his early operas in the first decade of the seventeenth century, but the new Duke of Mantua decided to “get rid of Monteverdi when he least expects it,” and in 1613 the composer moved to Venice, where he became the music director of the basilica of San Marco, the beautiful Byzantine church so well adapted to polychoral performance. In 1637, in Venice, the first opera was performed before a public audience. By 1640 there were forty opera theatres operating in the city during the two weeks of Carnival.

Monteverdi, by now in his seventies, wrote The Return of Ulysses at the urging of Venetian noblemen, especially Giacomo Badoaro, the librettist. Conditions for productions before a paying public in Venice differed from those in the court of Mantua. Costumes, instrumentalists, and choristers were subject to a strict budget so that the theatre could profit from the ten performances it held, theatres competed vigorously with each other so that theatrical effects and spectacle were important, and the plots had to be appealing rather than moralistic glorifications of the court, so that if killing swinish villains gave the audience a happy ending that was better than benignity and forgiveness, so much the better for the box office. The whole score has not come down to us, and some numbers are supplied from his other Venetian operas.

​​Review by Paul MerkleyFRSC and David Richards

Toronto ON April 19th and 22nd 2018

The company of Ulysses; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

PM: (Sunday afternoon): Meghan Lindsay played the large role of the goddess Minerva to great effect. Carla Huhtanen (Fortuna and Melanto) and Isaiah Bell (Human Frailty and Eurimaco) were strong as singers and actors in the portrayal of the comical lovers. Others in the stellar cast included Christopher Enns (Telemaco), Laura Pudwell (Ericlea), Erin Sheehan (Eumete), Kevin Skelton (Anfinomo and Jupiter), and Michael Taylor (Pisandro). Full credit to Fallis, who not only conducted very well and played the organ, but prepared and co-ordinated the music to great effect. The instrumentalists complemented the singers perfectly.

Monteverdi not only played the central role in early opera, he pioneered what he called the “second practice,” a style of composition in which the text was the first consideration, and the music followed it. One point for musical style is that for Monteverdi the expressive requirements of the text justified breaking the rules of music theory. Another is that the affect, or mood of the text he considered to change phrase by phrase, or even word by word, instead of keeping the same affect for an entire aria, such as a “rage aria” or a lament.

The company of Ulysses; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

Company of The Return of Ulysses; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

DR: (Thursday evening): The element of spectacle, which is so important in opera, came through in the chariot of Minerva floating down from the sky, the colorful costumes, the characters, the dancers, the lighting effects (Michelle Ramsay, lighting designer), that included strobes in the storm scenes, the ocean waves, the wind produced by long cloth panels agitated by dancers, and the starry sky with gold glitter coming down on Ulysses as he emerged, rejuvenated, and in his royal garb. The dancers, choreographed by co-artistic director Jeannete Lajeunesse Zingg, who also danced in perfect form, added greatly to the spectacle.

I was particularly impressed with the powerfully dramatic Croatian tenor Krešimir Špicer, familiar to Opera Atelier productions, having sung in eight operas for them. Mireille Lebel (Penelope) was entirely convincing as a grieving wife and the moral compass of the story. Douglas Williams’ strong bass-baritone voice complemented his physicality, fitting for his role as an aggressive suitor. No one was sad to see him done in by the bow of Ulysses.

The whole production was very moving and memorable. We felt that we had travelled to Venice in 1640. The cast did their final curtain call to the music of 'the moresca' that ends the composer’s opera Orfeo. This is a performance not to be missed. Three performances remain on April 24th, 27th, and 28th 2018.

PM: My friends and I had a few moments with Pyknoski at intermission. "No one can move our emotions and affections like Monteverdi" he remarked. I said that I had never witnessed the opera with the gestures and movements so carefully calculated and executed to such great effect. This time he gave credit to the singers. They want to rehearse, he said; these singers have a great interest in the details. He noted that they are even willing to make their voices harsh at some points for expression. And here again Fallis’s judgment is to be praised. On certain dissonant notes, expressive of longing or anguish, I heard Huhtanen, Lebel, and others widen the vowel to highlight the affect. When they did, the dissonance made more sense. I heard and felt the second practice come alive for me as never before.

The dances, expertly choreographed by Lajeunesse Zingg, were exciting and were executed flawlessly.

Krešimir Špicer (Ulysses) and Christopher Enns (Telemaco); Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

Krešimir Špicer (Ulysses) and Mireille Lebel (Penelope); Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

Opera Atelier presented Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse at the Elgin Theatre, opening its spring run of productions this past weekend. The experience of opera is all about taking the audience into a different world, whether imaginary or historical. This is not your grandparents’ opera, or even your great-grandparents’ opera—it’s your seventeenth-century Venetian ancestors’ opera. 

To produce an authentic, period reconstruction of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses you need the following: singers who stand out, but not with uncontrolled vibrato, who can sing the gorgia (the special Baroque ornaments produced in the throat, e.g. the trillo, a repeated note with glottal stops), who can learn and will execute the Baroque gestures that accompany the text like a signed communication, special effects (lots of special effects), flats with landscapes (lots of flats), Baroque instruments and skilled instrumentalists (thank you Tafelmusik), period dance, and a director (Marshall Pynkoski adds his own, unique flair, colour, and approach) and conductor (David Fallis) to keep it all together. This production is so ambitious that it takes two reviewers to do it justice, so we are sharing this.

The company of Ulysses; Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

PM: Thanks to generous friends, I had the privilege of attending a rehearsal, which was sung, but which was mainly for the purpose of staging. It was an unforgettable experience because it allowed me to see Pynkoski’s vision of the production coming into focus. As I watched a scene, heard his instructions, and saw it repeated, I understood how his matching each gesture and movement to specific beats of music made the work come alive. Opera Atelier is unique in its emphasis on the precise, co-ordinated movements of the singers. At the rehearsal, one enthusiastic listener exclaimed, that “They don’t just park and bark!” Indeed they do not. Every gesture, every movement is tied to the music and the meaning of the opera.