Monteverdi,  Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, 1639

Friday July 28th

Why myths turned to operas

In this term we’ll explore what Charlotte Valori describes as “the relationship between the cradle of culture and its most dazzling offspring.” Opera was created at a time when the Classics were being rediscovered and the arts were beginning to flourish again after a millennium-long suppression by the Christian Church. The Classical world was again having a major impact on the arts, and the ancient gods became prominent figures in painting, sculpture, literature, and music. No good secular work of art seemed complete without at least a reference to the figures of the past. (from “Opera: Modernized Ancient Greek Drama”)

Ulysses - the first and ultimate myth-to-opera

Why start with Monteverdi? Go back to our explorations of Orfeo and Coronation of Poppea in term 1.   He was one of the first opera creators and first into Greek myths.  “Monteverdi brought a genuinely new form of music into the mainstream. All of his operas, including The Return of Ulysses, have played a large part in keeping it there ever since.” (Welsh National Opera) Why Ulysses? Well, it’s the ultimate myth, wonderful drama, asking to be an opera. The story “tells how constancy and virtue are ultimately rewarded, treachery
and deception overcome. ” (Wikipedia)  Of all classical myths, this remains the most familiar, closely reprised in the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where art Thou? “[the opera is] usually faithful to Homer’s epic,…we are given one of the most profound musical  meditations upon the ravages and costs of  warfare – for both those who return, and those  to whom they are returned.” (from Barbican.org) Explore what can be done in amazing modern versions - with puppets in the William Kentridge production, reviewed by the New Yorker,  and a modernised ENO production reviewed by The Guardian. 'Ulysses' is three hours of talk…The characters talk about all kinds of things: Penelope and Ulysses talk about religion. The gods discuss whether to stop meddling with Ulysses. In fact, in the third act there is hardly any action, but rather, the long series of intense, emotional moments.' (NY Times)
"The opera has enough sex, gore and elements of the supernatural to satisfy the most jaded Venetian palate." - Tim Carter "the gods were always contemporary fantasies, while an abandoned wife and a humbled hero are eternals." - Anna Picard
We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; Tennyson, Ulysses
Monteverdi Ensemble of the Zurich Opera House, cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, dir. Jean-Pierre Ponelle. Ulysses, Werner Hollweg (tenor) Penelope his wife, Trudeleise Schmidt (mezzo) Telemachus their son, Francesco Araiza (tenor)

Our Production.

Harnoncourt's 2002 version, with Zurich Opera. Its "big-band score" and bold instrumentation were ..a likely source of future debate. (Wikipedia) Full opera on YouTube, English subtitles: Prologue & Acts 1-2, Act 3.

Murder of the suitors, ca. 300 BCE