Edinburgh International Festival
19.00 15th August ONLY
This work was composed over thirty years later than L’Orfeo, and is much richer and more complex. There was much less chorus work, but lots of interaction between the soloists – many fine duets and larger ensembles, and solo outpourings to a faithful auditor. The orchestral writing brilliantly illustrated and underlined the characters’ emotions and the drama contained much contrast of character, emotion, and mood. There were lots of gods intervening, manipulating and protecting; dire warnings of what happens if you disobey them; and considerable disagreement among them, a particularly fiery confrontation between Neptune and Jove towards the end, with Jove pointing out that striking people with thunderbolts is less effective than being merciful [something our current political leaders would do well to note…]
Penelope awaits the return of her husband, Ulisse, from the Trojan War: she refuses to accept that he is dead and spurns the advances of suitors who seek both herself and the kingdom of Ithaca. Ulisse returns, disguised as a beggar – only his faithful shepherd Eumete recognises him. Telemaco, Ulisse’s son, rejoices to learn that his father is alive, and terrifies the suitors by announcing his imminent return: the suitors plot to kill Ulisse, but he reveals himself by stringing his great bow, which they are unable to bend – he then kills them all. Penelope is not yet convinced that this stranger is in fact her husband – he has to describe their bed-cover, which no-one but the two of them have ever seen, before she will allow herself to believe in his long-awaited return.
Furia Zanasi’s Ulisse was outstanding – huge voice and huge presence, with tenderness and passion in equal measure. I was glad to see the previous night’s Orfeo, Krystian Adam, singing well and freely as Telemaco and, like other soloists, playing his part in some of the choruses. Lucile RIchardot, last night’s Messagera, confirmed my high opinion of her with a magnificent Penelope. She was mainly confined to recitative-like utterances expressing her grief, with a wonderfully plangent torna, torna, Ulisse, and only blossomed into glorious melody when finally she was able to accept that her husband had indeed returned. Anna Dennis shone as the Despina-like Melanto, telling us gleefully of the pleasure she derives from being in and making love, and advising Penelope – and us all – that it is much better to enjoy a living lover than weeping and grieving for a dead husband. Gianluca Buratto was a very fiery and bombastic Neptune and an excellently self-opinionated suitor. The other two suitors, Michał Czerniawski and Gareth Treseder were equally expressive and engaging: I loved their trios with the contrast of counter-tenor, tenor and bass voices.
The music had wonderful rhythmic and melodic invention and variety. There were more ‘tunes’ than in Orfeo, and very well-rounded characters – much credit goes to John Eliot Gardiner and co-director Elsa Rooke for making what could potentially be a long yawn into something vibrant and exciting. As with L’Orfeo, the action took place in and around the orchestra – at one point the greedy Iro [Robert Burt] was sobbing on the conductor’s shoulder, at another someone sat on the spare bit of the harpist’s stool, and all the time the musical tapestry woven between singers and orchestra was glinting and gleaming, sparkling, pulsating with emotion.
I could see John Eliot Gardiner from where I sat, and with the simplest of gestures he encouraged singers and orchestra to create pure magic. Fifty years’ passionate espousal of the cause of Monteverdi has brought us this exquisite evening. Ulisse and Penelope’s final duet faded into silence – and then the storm of applause and cheering broke out to salute another outstanding performance from John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.