The magic of Monteverdi and what he means to us

Participants in the first Irish production of ‘The Return of Ulysses’ talk to Michael Dervan

The Return of Ulysses

The Return of Ulysses

 

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was the first great opera composer. Opera Collective Ireland, whose productions give a platform to young, professional singers, and the Kilkenny Arts Festival are presenting the first Irish production of his Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses) in Christopher Cowell’s English translation with the period-instruments of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

There will also be performances at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire on Friday, September 7th, and Saturday 8th. Michael Dervan spoke to some of the participants about their relationship with Monteverdi’s music. 

Patrick Mason: “Wherever I’ve encountered Monteverdi, I just sit there and marvel at the perfection of the works.”
Patrick Mason: “Wherever I’ve encountered Monteverdi, I just sit there and marvel at the perfection of the works.”

Patrick Mason, director

What was your earliest connection with Monteverdi?
Hearing the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin for the first time, which was when I was in my late teens, and a friend had an old Deutsche Grammophon Archiv recording, which was absolutely wonderful. It just blew me away, the sound of it. 

What’s so special about his music?
It sounds paradoxical, but he has this extraordinary combination of limpid clarity and complexity, the way he tangles the vocal lines and yet keeps each one clear, strong and vibrant. It’s wonderfully tensile music. And has terrific emotional impact too. And subtle. 

What’s so special about Ulysses?
My operatic experience kind of starts with the 18th century and goes forward. But to find a form so subtle, and so closely linked to text, where the cutting edge of it all is the word, I find that really exciting. It’s like finding a whole new dramatic form. In fact it’s a sung play more than anything we think of as an opera in the sort of 18th- or 19th-century way. I’m just amazed at what this form can achieve. It seems so simple and yet it is actually so complex.

Your favourite Ulysses moment?
There’s also one absolutely wonderful moment where the gods settle their dispute and Neptune and Minerva make peace. Neptune says, okay, let Ulysses live, let him go home. It’s only 24 bars, but of a transcendent double chorus, a chorus of heavenly voices, a chorus of sailors on earth. It’s absolutely breathtaking. You just don’t expect it all. And then the final moments of the opera, where the voices just blossom into aria and duet, extraordinary writing. Intensely moving, really lovely. And sensual as well. 

Your biggest challenge in Ulysses?
Christian and I spent a few months before Christmas actually editing the text. If you were to do the whole thing it’s about four hours worth of music, I’d say. We were aiming to get it down to about three, if we could. That meant sacrificing a few scenes along the way. It is a bit like editing a play. It was to keep a narrative coherence but also to encompass all the best situations, all the best music that we possibly could. 

Your favourite Monteverdi moment?
The Vespers, yeah. It still is No. 1. No. 2 would currently be Ulysses, even though I also adore Poppea.

Your favourite Monteverdi performer(s)/performance(s)?
Christian won’t thank me for saying this, but I suppose John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir. And Harry Christophers and The Sixteen for the Vespers they did at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.

Paul McNamara: "The three great Monteverdi operas are all very special in their own way."

Paul McNamara, CEO of Opera Collective Ireland

Earliest connection?
We did The Coronation of Poppea at the Dublin College of Music [now the DIT Conservatory] in 1984, conducted by Ethna Tinney and brought it on tour to Limerick and Cork. The cast included Patricia Bardon, Thérèse Feighan, Frances Lucey, Andrew Murphy, Nigel Williams, a real who’s who of young singers at the time, and a precursor of the kind of cast we have today. Brian Merriman directed.

What’s so special?
hen you go to a Monteverdi opera, it’s a bit like a baby. Everything that comes into opera in subsequent centuries is there, either in embryo or fully developed. It is the marriage of music, emotion and dramatic situation. The maximum effect with the minimum of means.

What’s so special about Ulysses?
The three great Monteverdi operas are all very special in their own way. We chose to do Ulysses in Ireland because it hadn’t been done here, and also because of the range of opportunities, the large number of roles for the young cast that we have. 

Favourite Ulysses moment?
I think the resolution of the opera, the moment when Ulysses describes to Penelope their marital bed, and the sense of relief for Penelope. It’s a moment of great beauty, great love, and great resolution.

Biggest challenge?
Often the biggest challenges when it comes to bringing off such projects are not necessarily artistic but rather logistical. Sourcing appropriate accommodation for a large company for a reasonable price is really not easy in Ireland these days. It very much feels like a pre-Celtic Tiger #2!

Favourite Monteverdi moment?
As a singer you tend to like the works you are working on at the moment. I must say that moment at the end of Ulysses is very, very beautiful. In Poppea you can’t but think they’re really not the nicest people. In Ulysses, this resolution, this realisation of hope, aspiration, love, relief is very heart-warming, very consoling. 

Performers/performances?
Wherever I’ve encountered Monteverdi, I just sit there and marvel at the perfection of the works. It is opera in its truest form. Everything is there. Monteverdi has it all. It seems to be a repertoire that brings the best out in the people who do it. 

Christian Curnyn, conductor: “It [Ulysses] is his masterpiece. Of all his works I think it’s the best.”
Christian Curnyn, conductor: “It [Ulysses] is his masterpiece. Of all his works I think it’s the best.”

Christian Curnyn, conductor

Earliest connection?
Listening to discs my father had when I was five or six, Monteverdi madrigals sung by The Consort of Musicke. 

What’s so special?
He’s like the great opera composers. He manages to get to the heart of what’s happening, and conveys real human emotions within the restrictions of the musical language of his time. 

What’s so special about Ulysses?
It’s his masterpiece. Of all his works I think it’s the best. Some people would say Poppea. It’s truer than Poppea in that it’s throughout composed by Monteverdi. Poppea, we know, is actually the work of a number of different composers, who completed it after Monteverdi’s death. Ulysses is the best because of the story and the libretto, which is fabulous. It has this incredible yearning about it.

Favourite Ulysses moment?
It’s the section where the shepherd Eumete and Ulysses first meet, with Ulysses disguised as a beggar. It’s just a fantastic sequence of recitatives and aria showing the absolute joy of Eumete at the thought that Ulysses might be coming home. It’s incredibly well achieved. 

Biggest challenge?
I’m not really a conductor in it. I will occasionally be giving upbeats because of the nature of the way that we’ve set the orchestra. Essentially what I have to do is to convey what I want of the players through the rehearsals, and then when we get to the performance I actually have to leave it up to them, I’m just one of the harpsichords. We follow what the singers do, rather than the other way around. The biggest challenge is achieving what I need to achieve, and then letting go of the whole thing when we get to the performance. 

Favourite Monteverdi moment? 
I think it’s the recit of Orfeo in L’Orfeo where he says, Tu sei morto, You are dead, where he talks about Euridice being dead. It’s just unbelievably raw and incredibly potent. Some people say that Monteverdi created opera and it’s been all downhill from there. I don’t quite go with that, obviously. But there is something to be said about the purity of what opera is meant to be and was created to be. Monteverdi got that just right. 

Performers/performances?
In the 1970s Nikolaus Harnoncourt did a series of Monteverdi operas at Zurich Opera. They were filmed for television. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was the director. The production is of a different era, though it’s absolutely fantastic the way it was filmed. But it’s incredibly beguiling, and there’s a real synergy between staging and pit. The three operas he did there are my favourite DVD recordings. 

Raphaela Mangan, mezzo soprano, Penelope: “I love the role, I love the music, the dissonances, the clashes of harmony and the straight tone singing.”
Raphaela Mangan, mezzo soprano, Penelope: “I love the role, I love the music, the dissonances, the clashes of harmony and the straight tone singing.”

Raphaela Mangan, mezzo soprano, Penelope

Earliest connection?
I would have been familiar with his music, but the first opportunity I got to perform his music was in 2009, when I did the role of Ottavia in The Coronation of Poppea.

What’s so special?
I love the role, I love the music, the dissonances, the clashes of harmony and the straight tone singing, which I don’t really get an opportunity to do in any music other than this. And the period instruments as well. They’re really beautiful.

What’s so special about Ulysses?
I can relate to the role of Penelope. I am a wife, I am a mother. I relate to her yearning, her sorrow, her joy, and all that comes with being a mum and being a wife. 

Favourite Ulysses moment?
I’d have to say the final scene. It’s absolutely beautiful. When Ulysses comes back and the argument they have. She doesn’t believe he’s him, he’s trying to reassure her that he is who he is. She’s in denial about the whole thing and then he paints this picture to her that only she could know. When she realises it’s him, it totally melts her heart. She goes from being this really strong, relentless woman to being his wife, his loving partner. It’s the only time they sing together.  

Favourite Monteverdi moment? 
In Poppea I love Ottavia’s scene where she has to leave her kingdom. She has this beautiful aria [Addio Roma! Addio patria! Amici addio!] where she’s sighing and saying goodbye to her friends and her land and her loved ones. 

Performers/performances?
I’m actually quite fond of the production that Christian Curnyn has just done in the Round House in London for the Royal Opera House. It’s an English translation as well, so it’s completely relatable. I’ve learned a lot from listening to it. And Anne Sofie von Otter has done Poppea and I really really like her. 

Gyula Nagy, baritone, Ulysses: “I think there’s a purity in it. But at the same time there’s a lot of freedom in the musical text and how you interpret it . . . It’s a liberating feeling to work on a piece like this.”
Gyula Nagy, baritone, Ulysses: “I think there’s a purity in it. But at the same time there’s a lot of freedom in the musical text and how you interpret it . . . It’s a liberating feeling to work on a piece like this.”

Gyula Nagy, baritone, Ulysses

First connection?
I was still at university in Hungary and I studied Theatre Studies, so we watched quite a few performances, and there was actually one of Ulysses. I was absolutely fascinated by it. Before that Puccini, Verdi were my favourites. I’m so happy that I’m doing this now. 

What’s so special?
I think there’s a purity in it. But at the same time there’s a lot of freedom in the musical text and how you interpret it – there’s only the basic chord structures. All of the performances and recordings that I have listened to have been so different. It’s a liberating feeling to work on a piece like this. 

What’s so special about Ulysses?
The quest for his identity. You have an impression of him before he leaves, which we obviously don’t see in the opera. And when he gets back 20 years later, it’s the way he’s trying to fit into that impression – or not – and how he’s expecting the others to see the old picture while he has changed. And he’s balancing it all within himself at the same time. 

Favourite Ulysses moment?
When he is on the shores of his own land, but still he does not recognise it. It’s clearly a sign of a change of what he thought he knew, what he thought he was. It’s a great metaphor. Musically, the Prologue with Human Frailty is one of my favourite. It relates so much to human life in general, and in other opera styles you rarely get that. 

Biggest challenge?
The development of his realisation about the change in himself, in his family, in the circumstances he goes back to. I would like to draw a line from the start to the end, as a journey which he has to accept, about which he has to rein in his anger. He has to learn to be wise and not just clever. 

Favourite Monteverdi moment? 
I love Poppea as well, it’s quite different, and Orfeo. The Orfeo aria is beautiful as well. It’s just so different from Ulysses, musically. It’s to do with the difference between the characters. 

Performers/performances?
On my phone I have a Harnoncourt version of Ulysses, and I have Christian Curnyn’s version as well. Also, there’s a recording of some bits of it on YouTube with Thomas Allen. It was surprising for me to see him for the first time in this role. I adored it for a while, even though it’s so different from Harnoncourt’s or Christian’s versions. 

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