Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (SV325, Ulysses’ Homecoming) (1639/40)
Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo) - Penelope
Dietrich Henschel (tenor) - L’humanita Fragilita/Ulisse
Malin Hartelius (soprano) - Melanto
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) - Telemaco
Rudolf Schasching (tenor) - Iro
Isabel Rey (soprano) - Minerva/Amore
Martina Janková (soprano) - Fortuna/Giunone
Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera House/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Klaus-Michael Grüber (stage director)
Set Design by Gilles Aillaud
rec. live Zurich Opera House, 2002
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1
Picture Format: 16:9
DVD Format: DVD 9, NTSC
Subtitles: Italian (Original Language), English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean.
FSK: 0
Region: 0
Format: NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101660 [155:00]
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, like the closing cantos of the Odyssey from which the story-line is taken, is life-enhancing. Leaving aside the vexed question of its authorship, it has become, over the years, my favourite of Monteverdi’s three operas despite the admitted blandishments of L’Orfeo; Poppea was still out on probation for me until I watched the recent Virgin Classics DVD set with Danielle de Niese and Philippe Jaroussky, conducted by William Christie, which has convinced me of its merits - 07095191: Recording of the Month - review.
This recording of Il Ritorno has been available for some time on earlier Arthaus DVDs, 100352 (still available) and 100353 (currently reported to be out of stock). Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s earlier Zurich video recording remains available on a budget-price set of five DVDs with the other two Monteverdi operas costing only a few pounds more than the Arthaus versions of the single opera: DG Unitel 0732478, a bargain for around £22.50.
Peter Grahame Woolf reported on this production for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard - here - rating it ‘worth seeing but not meriting a substantial special journey’, which just about sums up my response to the DVD. I first got to know this opera from Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s pioneering LP recording with the Vienna Concentus Musicus - still available complete on three Warner Teldec CDs for less than £10 (2564696142) with excerpts at around half that price on Apex 2564615082 - review. Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can stream it from there. Those LPs were revelatory - until then I’d only heard L’Orfeo - and I still listen to the CD reissue, but the DVD was rather less so.
In the main the production is free of quirks and oddities but there’s one right at the beginning; one consequence of having Ulisse also sing the part of Human Frailty in the Prologue - not a bad idea in itself - is that the latter part, intended for a mezzo or counter-tenor, has had to be transposed. Having a counter-tenor adds to the sense that human existence is fragile.
Reviewing the original DVD release of this Zurich set - here - Peter Wells enjoyed the music and the performance but thought that the minimalist production added little to the effect. My own reaction is quite different; sated with clever-clever productions that shift the action in time and place and annoy the viewer with pointless gimmicks, the production and costumes are for me among the main reasons for recommending the reissue. Peter Grahame Woolf gets it right for me when he writes of ‘an apt simplicity’.
Even Glyndebourne are at it now, as witness the DVD set of Handel’s Rinaldo (Opus Arte) which has become something of a bête noire in my estimation - review - so the Zurich production comes as a pleasant contrast; I wasn’t put out even by Ulisse’s not very fetching fisherman’s jumper. We seem to be fortunate with recordings of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in this respect, since the other two DVD sets which I own, both with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, are also largely gimmick-free, especially the Virgin DVD:
•  Virgin 4906129, recorded at Aix Festival, now available again from some dealers
•  Dynamic 33641, recorded at Teatro Real, Madrid - review
One or two aspects of the Dynamic production, such as the live eagle, raised my hackles marginally, but much less so than many of the efforts that I’ve seen recently. The singing on the Virgin set from the Aix festival is much better than that on Dynamic, which can now be ruled out in the light of the virtues of the performance on Virgin and on the new Arthaus reissue.
There are no significant weaknesses in the singing from Harnoncourt’s team, nor are there any outstanding performances. Dietrich Henschel’s Ulisse, as is appropriate, is the most impressive and Veselina Kasarova, statuesque as Penelope, almost matches him. The versatile Jonas Kaufmann as Telemaco, then only three years into his career, and Isabel Rey (Minerva/Amore) also well deserve the praise which Peter Wells accords them.
I’ve touched briefly on the set and costumes, both minimal. The costumes are vaguely modern, though Melanto wears something more akin to 18th-century. There are minor disappointments, such as the lack of visual clues - Minerva doesn’t wear her distinctive helmet and Penelope’s spinning wheel and loom are nowhere to be seen - but very little that really irked me. Jupiter and Neptune dressed like Estragon and Vladimir from Waiting for Godot came pretty close. Then there’s the question of why Eumete should be sitting on a statue of a goddess.
The biggest disappointment in terms of the set concerns the royal palace, of which we see the outside looking for all the world like a peasant’s cottage with whitewashed walls decorated with what looks like a turkey - a bird not associated with ancient Greece, to the best of my knowledge. Peter Grahame Woolf thought it represented the head of a deity, but it looks more like a turkey to me. For all the minimalism of the Virgin set we see the interior of something a little more elaborate - when the palace is described as debased, that’s meant figuratively, not literally - and we see Penelope at her work, making the tapestry by day which she will unpick at night in order to avoid completing it and having to carry out her promise to marry one of the suitors when it’s complete.
The idea of having the three suitors manipulate puppets of themselves on a stage the curtain of which is decorated with the Greek word Theatron - one for the classicists - works well until it comes to the stringing of the bow. Then we have to have two bows - a small one for the puppets to fail to string and a much larger one for Ulysses to shoot with, so the whole thing becomes rather ridiculous. Nor is the death of the suitors as spectacular as it can be in some productions.
Harnoncourt’s direction is secure, though overall I prefer Christie on Virgin. In theory Harnoncourt’s commingling of a modern-instrument orchestra with period continuo shouldn’t work, but it does.
Despite what I’ve said about the comparative lack of distraction from the Zurich production, once I’ve seen a production I usually return to it in audio only. There is no blu-ray equivalent of this DVD set, as far as I’m aware, but I don’t think you will be disappointed with either the picture or the sound, even as heard from the TV, but especially if you feed it through a decent audio set-up. I shall, therefore, probably find myself listening to these Harnoncourt DVDs in audio only - both on the better of my blu-ray players which links with my main audio system and as played from my computer via the system in my study. In which case, you may well prefer to economise and go for Harnoncourt’s Teldec set - our friends at MDT currently have this for less than £10 - or the equally inexpensive Brilliant Classics box for around £8; the latter, directed by Sergio Vartolo, despite some slow tempi, has a strong claim to be the most satisfying version of all and the documentation is de luxe, a model of how to present a budget-price recording. This is a scholarly version but the scholarship never gets in the way of enjoyment (Brilliant 93104).
Il ritorno d’Ulisse is a long work and I’m not surprised that Peter Grahame Woolf sometimes found things becoming a little tedious on the night; he would have liked the option of sur-titles. On DVD the subtitles are there on demand; one can take the music piecemeal, spread over two or three evenings, and I recommend that you do so. On the whole, despite the attractions of this Arthaus DVD, however, it’s to William Christie and his team on Virgin that I shall be returning most often. It’s also less expensive - around £13 as opposed to around £23 for the Arthaus.
Brian Wilson 

Worth considering but the Virgin DVD set with William Christie is preferable. 

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