The closing chapters of Homer’s Odyssey were the source for the opera regarded as the crowning achievement of composer Claudio Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses. The Trojan War is over.After 10 years, Ulysses has finally made his way back to his palace in Ithaca; not in triumph but disguised as a beggar. The disguise permits him to observe three suitors competing for the hand of his faithful wife Penelope; they are also plotting the death of his son. But with the assistance of the gods, the story has a happy ending: love, constancy and sacrifice prevail.
Monteverdi wrote his epoch-making Ulysses in 1640 when he was 73. The title in Italian is Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Premiered in Venice, then the centre of the rapidly evolving operatic form, it was revived in the following season, so successful was it with the Venetians. There is no record of any following performances although it may have been presented at the Imperial Court in Vienna, as the manuscript was discovered there in the 19th century.
It was performed in Paris in 1925, then rarely, until it entered the wider repertory when presented in Vienna in 1971 in a revelatory edition by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. We saw a splendid performance in 1991 in Amsterdam directed by Pierre Audi. Now Pinchgut is mounting a production in June (13-19) with the acclaimed Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães in the title role and wonderful Catherine Carby as Penelope. Not to be missed.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free