This past week a DVD arrived of a performance I'd not seen in more than 25 years: the 1973 Peter Hall production of "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" from Glyndebourne with Dame Janet Baker and Benjamin Luxon. This is, of course, the much loathed, highly criticized realization by Raymond Leppard which sends purists running to the hills screaming "Blasphemy!" Too bad because it is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful scores I've ever heard.
I first fell in love with this version in the beautiful set from Columbia from 1978 with the incandescent Penelope of Frederica von Stade and the warm, masculine Ulisse of Richard Stilwell . . . one of his finest roles. (The cover of that set remains one of my favorites). I still own the LPs (but don't have a turntable . . . something I hope to remedy this summer), so have not listened in years to it. The first time I heard it, I played it all over again - and did so - or at least great chunks of it - every time I played it, and it is one of those performances I find snatches of playing in my head without prompting.
As soon the performance begain, my face lit up, the (then) new arrangement of centuries old music springing to life in orchestrations both lean and spare, the full batter of the London Philharmonic's strings sawing with life through those opening measures - it takes my breath away.
Sir Peter's direction is flawless here, surely one of his finest moments. The Prologue, with the completely naked Annabelle Hunt as L'Humana Fragilta alone on stage, her torments being issued forth from the gods, who all arrive descending from the heavens gets things off to a really good start (though I prefer the tradition of Human Frailty being performed by the same singer as Ulisse). As L'Humana Fragilta descends into ornate, raised stage floor via elevator, the stage goes dark, with only the gods being lit as they ascend back to the heavens, and when the lights dim back on, there stands the forlornly stoic queen Penelope, in one of those quiet miracles of theatre.
Dame Janet begins the great, long aria "Di Misera Regina" and oh, my . . . I'm lost. Wrapped in an enormous robe, her arms immobile as a statue. Her singing is of such delicate, exquisiteness, her pointing up of the text, wed to the emotions of the score is heartbreaking. By her first "Torna, torna" I could not keep my eyes from flooding. Slowly the stage becomes active with her court taking their places behind her. As the aria turns hopeful near its end, servants remove the robe and help Penelope into a stunningly simple baroque frock and Penelope softens both in voice and demeanor for the section beginning "Torna tranquila al mare." Then, that final whispered cry of "Torna, torna, o torna, torna Ulisse" as she plunges back into despair, oh my. I'm blathering here for there are no words to adequately describe how exquisite a performance Dame Janet turns in. Both she, and von Stade win the laurel wreath for this moment, yet to be unmatched by any other Penelope I've experienced in any edition.
Benjamin Luxon makes a most worthy partner, manly, tortured, ever projecting the great leader Ulisse, even when at his most vulnerable. When first getting to know this opera, I was always amazed at the great love story at its center - yet its two protagonists live almost separate arcs for hours until their touching reunion. The libretto is quite simply a masterpiece and a great example of converting a work of great literature into great stage drama.
For me, one of the chief glories of Leppard's adaptation is his unorthodox way, not only with the score, but of setting music to portions of the libretto for which no music has ever been found. The best example of this is in the scene between Telemaco and Penelope, ending with the Queen's aria "Debole fil di speme." No edition but Leppard's has this aria, and I remember being fascinated to find that Leppard himself wrote the aria, the melody based on one of Monteverdi's more obscure madrigals. No offense to Monteverdi, but this is, for me, one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera and authenticity be damned, it is a powerful, heart stopping moment as the Queen again softens and nervously, cautiously tries to believe her son is telling the truth, but she daren't hope so.
The staging and pacing of the final duet, for me, puts to shame every other production, and the simplicity of its ending, Penelope and Ulisse leaning their heads forward, barely touching each other as the lights dim after their final "Si, si mio core, si si, si si." finds me a blubbering wet mess from the sheer beauty of the moment. The Glyndebourne audience sits in rapt silence for about 11 seconds (yes, I counted) before cheering. They knew.
The choruses, the magnificent costumes, the baroque stage effects, the singing, the playing of all of those ancient instruments blending in seamlessly with a full modern symphony - all of it comes together for me in a way that few performances of this opera can or have so far.
Obsessor that I am, I ended up pulling out the other four DVDs of "Ulisse" and began watching them all, throughout the week, returning to the 73 Glyndebourne after certain scenes to compare, including Henze's wild ride with the score for the Salzburg Festival, with marvelous performances from Kathleen Kuhlmann and Thomas Allen in a truly spectacular staging.
The one that has always moved me the least is the Harnoncourt/Ponnelle film which, for my money, never quite gets anything "right" - though certain images are indeed beautiful, the sound never seems to be coming from the lip-synching singers, and its over done "high baroque" sets, costumes - and the most unsatisfactorily staged ending of ANY opera I've seen, is (for me) almost painful.
The Christie led performance from the Aix Festival runs a close second to the less authentically Monteverdian Glyndebourne with stunning performances and a fascinating staging by Adrian Noble.
The Zurich production - with Harnoncourt giving yet another revision to the score, is musically interesting, but I loathe the production which looks like a touring production of "Mama Mia" - and that butt ugly little Greek house with its human face of a window is simply ghastly. Vesselina Kasarova, a singer I like in many other roles, is just too bitter and bossy, and dark of tone to make me feel for her Penelope.
Though I've always longed for a video of von Stade and Stilwell in the Peter Hall production, I'll gladly make due with the old LP set (which I hope to transfer soon) and this beautiful, beautiful performance by Dame Janet and Benjamin Luxon. If you're a purist, you may find it deplorable, but if you just let it - you may be surprised at how this show can just take you away. It certainly did me.