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Claudio Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

Zurich Operahaus with Orchestra La Scintilla and Nikolaus Harnoncourt
ARTHAUS 100 352

The Teatro San Cassiano opened its doors in Venice in 1637 as the first commercial opera house in the world. Monteverdiís Ulysses was his first work performed in the new house and demanded a new approach even from a master of the genre. That the work is a masterpiece is beyond question. However, its modern presentation is more problematic as there is no definitive score - the composer drawing on the professionalism of the players as well as the singers to fill out the parts as the mood took them during the performance.

As a result we have had performances which range from the opulent under Raymond Leppard to the astringent - Kent Opera on tour. Nikolaus Harnoncourt provides a happy medium which allows the orchestra to speak with authority and colour where necessary but pares back the accompaniment to organ and strings where appropriate.

The same is true of Klaus-Michael Gruberís production which is set in modern Greece but without any unnecessary modernisms. A timeless tale, it impacts with greater emotional truth as a result of its modern setting, where ancient Greek costumes may have been too distancing. The cast obviously work as a close ensemble with characters clear cut but part of the whole. Vesselina Kasarovaís Penelope is a paragon of modesty and virtue without ever seeming prissy or puritanical. We suffer with her and rejoice at her eventual recovery.

Dietrich Henschelís Ulysses is a man who has suffered and even the promise of the gods can do little to smooth his path home. The scene between himself and his son Telemaco, when he reveals the truth, is superbly moving. The sound quality on the DVD is excellent throughout. Anyone who loves early opera and improvisation should snap this up. BH