Festival Music

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Usher Hall

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Keith Bruce

five stars

FASCINATING stories are being told by John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists this week, and they are not solely from classical mythology. The first opera lovers had to wait 35 years for Claudio Monteverdi to develop the genre, while the transition at EIF 2017 has happened overnight. It is not only the music of his version of the tale of the returning hero and the waiting Penelope that is more sophisticated, but the dramaturgy and depth of charaterisation in the piece. On the evidence of this staging by Gardiner and Elsa Rooke, the composer's name should be mentioned alongside that of Shakespeare in the 17th century's encapsulation of the ways of the human heart.

Things are altogether more unbridled than in Orfeo, the pious Christian gloss on that story replaced with a multiplicity of approaches to the problems of restraining the inflamed heart. Randy maid Melanto (Anna Dennis) and shepherd Eurimaco (Zachary Wilder) are at it like knives, and she thinks her mistress should loosen up a bit. As Penelope, Lucile Richardot seems genuinely tormented by her loss and cluster of stalkers, and sings her angst wonderfully. A re-trained journalist, bless her, Richardot is many a Festival-goers new favourite mezzo. Furio Zanasi is an impassioned, often rather cross, Ulisse – his coat on, ready to go in an instant, when Minerva (Hana Blazikova) shows the way home.

There are wonderful little bits of stage business throughout, with Robert Burt as Iro rivalling Dennis in that department, and the moments of unaccompanied singing from various ensembles and songs like the duet of Ulisse and the faithful Eumete (Francisco Fernandez-Rueda) quite exquisite. Shame that the onstage thunder and lightning effects were out-gunned by the Tattoo fireworks at the opera's tender conclusion.