One of the most accomplished Monteverdi stagings I have ever seen. Unmissable.
This fine production of a great baroque opera shows ETO at its best: for its simplicity, honesty and integrity, I admired it more than anything else I have seen in London this autumn.
A staging of extraordinary beauty and simplicity. Profoundly touching.
I have rarely heard Monteverdi’s score delivered with such fervour or sensual grace.
My fellows in the dress circle cheered and stood at the curtain, their delight visible to all.
Although the Greek Confederation destroyed Troy and enslaved its inhabitants, the Greek leaders had a hard time bringing home the spoils of war. Famously, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife and her lover on the night he got home. Ulysses, the strategist among the Greeks at Troy, was condemned by the gods to years of trials at sea and on land, in the course of which he offended Neptune, God of the Sea, by blinding the god’s son, a violent one-eyed giant.
At home in Ithaca, most assume that Ulysses is dead. His wife, Penelope, keeps a number of ardent suitors at bay by saying she must finish a tapestry she is weaving before thinking of marriage – and she unravels her work every night. Telemachus, the son of Ulysses and Penelope, goes on a visit to another returned hero, Menelaus, and meets his famous wife Helen, over whom the war was fought.
Human Frailty is assailed by Time, Fortune and Love.
Penelope complains that her youth has passed in waiting for her husband to return from Troy. Her nurse Ericlea consoles her, and her maid Melanto tries to convince her to choose one of the suitors as a lover. Indeed, Melanto has secretly taken up with one of them – Eurymachus – herself.
Neptune, God of the Sea, is angry with the Phaecians for helping Ulysses on the last leg of his journey back to Ithaca. He turns them to stone, but stops short of directly striking Ulysses – who has other friends among the gods.
One of those friends is Minerva (Athena to the Greeks, goddess of wisdom – and cunning). As Ulysses is washed ashore, alone, she appears to him as a youth, and changes his appearance so that he will be able to come to court undetected.
Melanto once more tries to convince Penelope to forget her dead husband and find a new one.
An old shepherd, Eumaeus, is one of those who has remained faithful to Ulysses in his long absence. He encounters Irus, the gluttonous client of the suitors, a sort of ‘new man’. He then meets the disguised Ulysses, and recognises his master.
Telemachus returns to Ithaca in the chariot of Minerva, his patroness. He meets Eumaeus, who introduces him to Ulysses. Father and son are reunited.
The suitors – Antinous, Pisander and Eurymachus – are making free with everything and everyone at court. Penelope protects herself with hospitality. When Eumaeus announces that Telemachus has returned, the suitors plot to kill him; at the same time, they contrive to offer gifts to Penelope in a final assault on her virtue.
In a hidden place, Ulysses, Minerva and Eumaeus plot the downfall of the suitors.
Telemachus tells his mother of the beauty of Helen of Troy, much to Penelope’s chagrin. ‘How monstrous is the love that bathes in bloodshed,’ she chides him. Telemachus says that he saw an eagle when in Sparta, prophesying the homecoming of Ulysses.
At court the suitors and Irus mock Eumaeus and the beggar he has brought with him (who is Ulysses in disguise). The beggar fights Irus. Penelope sets the suitors a task she thinks impossible: she says that she will marry the one who can string the bow of Ulysses. Each of the suitors fails in turn, but the beggar strings the bow and with the help of Minerva he slaughters the suitors.
Irus bemoans the death and destruction at the palace, and the terrible consequences to his belly of the loss of his patrons.
Melanto, too, is shocked by the fate of the suitors, and she urges Penelope to punish the audacious beggar who killed them. Eumaeus, on the other hand, is overjoyed; he tells Penelope that her husband is in Ithaca, but she does not believe him. Nor does she believe her son Telemachus when he says that the wily beggar was Ulysses, disguised by Minerva.
Minerva wants the gods to reward Ulysses, finally, after his long trials. She successfully entreats Neptune to forget his grudge, and the seas pardon Ulysses for his misdemeanours on the way home from Troy.
Ericlea has recognised the old beggar as Ulysses, as she was once his nurse; even her counsel is rejected by Penelope.
Finally, Ulysses himself persuades Penelope that he has indeed come home.
Andrew SlaterAntinous / Time / Neptune / Phaecian
Anthony GregoryEurymachus / Amphinomous / Fortune / Phaecian
Clint van der LindePisander / Human Frailty / Ericlea / Phaecian
Martha JonesMelanto / Amore