Concert Review: Boston Early Music Festival’s Ulisse Hits the Mark

Sunday’s performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria—by a company whose members know each other’s abilities, voices, and personalities well—gave every indication of an extraordinary week ahead.

Penelope and the Suitors:  Charles Blandy (Anfinomo), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Penelope), Christian Immler (Antinoo), José Lemos (Pisandro), Aaron Sheehan (Eurimaco), and cast.

Penelope and the Suitors: Charles Blandy (Anfinomo), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Penelope), Christian Immler (Antinoo), José Lemos (Pisandro), Aaron Sheehan (Eurimaco), and cast.

By Susan Miron

The Boston Early Music Festival is on a roll—and a very successful roll, at that. A fortuitous tour in January of seven European cities (which all invited them back to perform) was followed by an unanticipated Grammy award for Best Opera Recording (after several past Grammy nominations). And this year’s festival (June 7—14) promises to be at least as exciting as past festivals, with its unheard-of trifecta of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) operas (instead of its usual one opera per festival).

For its 18th biennial festival, themed “Invention & Discovery,” BEMF’s usual—which is to say tremendously gifted—forces are putting on the three surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi, along with his landmark “Vespers of 1610.” As BEMF’s Executive Director, Kathleen Fay, has stated, “Truly, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear these iconic works performed back-to-back by some of the most exceptional singers and instrumentalists in the world.” Add to that BEMF’s usual suspects—Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors; Gilbert Blin, Stage Director; and Anna Watkins, Costume Designer, and the BEMF Dance Ensemble—and you’ve got a tried-and-true recipe for unparalleled success. Had these four works been held in one week elsewhere, you can bet that many in the audience would have traveled far and wide to catch them. Undoubtedly, I would have been one of those Monteverdi pilgrims.

Sunday’s opera, which opened the virtually non-stop week of music (concerts at 8 p.m. each night, others at 5 and 11 p.m. nightly), was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria,”(“The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland”), whose libretto by Giacomo Bodoara is notable for its close adherence to Homer’s Odyssey (circa 850 BC). Monteverdi’s opera was completed in his seventies, in 1640, between his early Orfeo (1607) and his last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643). This week’s Monteverdi trilogy (or, with the “Vespers of 1610,” a fully-clothed “full Monty”) features staged productions of all three operas in eight days. (Orfeo on Saturday is sold out and the others might be as well when word gets out about how good the least famous of the trio, Ulisse, was on Sunday, when it was packed.)

Colin Balzer as Ulisse.

Colin Balzer as Ulisse.

The opera is based on the Homeric tale of Ulysses, the warrior who returns to Ithaca after twenty years to find his palace full of suitors who hope to persuade his wife, Penelope, to remarry. Ulysses had left behind an infant son, Telemachus, who, as his mother is fighting off suitors, goes in search of his father. In disguise, Ulysses kills the suitors, but has trouble persuading Penelope that he is her long-lost husband. It is only when Ulysses describes the picture of Diana, the protectress of virtue, that Penelope had woven into their bed’s cover, that the joyous reunion, awaited for so long, happens.

Monteverdi was not fond of the idea of using castrati, so he made both his Ulisse and Orfeo baritone-tenors. Most of the vocal parts in this opera are accompanied stirringly by plucked continuo—a Baroque harp (elegantly played by Maxine Eilander), two theorbos (the lutenists Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs), harpsichord, and occasionally double bass, with only sporadic use of the strings (Monteverdi eschewed winds in his Venetian operas). The performers, both onstage and in the pit, are a seasoned, amiable, and seemingly very happy troupe, having sung and played in BEMF for many years.

Mary-Ellen Nesi as Penelope.

Mary-Ellen Nesi as Penelope.

The cast was excellent. Ulisse was sung magnificently by Canadian lyric tenor Colin Balzer, a veteran of four previous BEMF operas. It is said that the character of the patient, long-suffering Penelope deeply moved Monteverdi—she certainly moved Sunday’s audience. The opera’s no-nonsense Rock of Gibraltar—whose fierce attachment to the hope of her husband’s unlikely return is etched on her voice, her face, and her stoic being—was sung to dramatic perfection by the Canadian-Greek mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi. The opera’s beginning features Penelope in one of opera’s most expressive, lengthy, and heartfelt laments. Throughout the opera, without her true love returned, she sings exclusively in anguished recitative (“For a miserable queen there is no end to suffering anxiety! The expected doesn’t arrive, and the years fly by… Time, only you have forgotten to return.”).

Zachary Wilder as Telemaco.

Zachary Wilder as Telemaco.

Some consider this opera libretto the first one really based on human beings, with all their passions and foibles. (Preceding the performance, a historian posed the idea that music here is tied to sexuality, especially in the case of the three abstemious male suitors.) After an opera’s worth (three and a half hours) of recitative, the moment of recognition and love between Ulisse and Penelope literally melts into a luscious love duet, replete with strings and seductively beautiful melodies. What a startling way to end an opera! (Apparently fortune’s wheel had NOT stopped.) Deliverance is offered to these two lovers, who many believe sing the first real love duet in opera history.


Mireille Asselin as Minerva.

Mireille Asselin as Minerva.

Ulisse is full of characters both mythic and human. The opera features Human Frailty (Colin Balzer), Time, Fortune, Cupid, Jupiter (the irrepressible Jason McStoots), Neptune, Minerva, Juno (Amanda Forsythe) and Naiads. There are three ludicrous suitors of Penelope—Pisandro, Anfinomo, and Antinoo—as well as a hanger-on of the suitors (Iro), Ithacans and Phaeacians (who are are played by the same men), plus Ericlea (Laura Pudwell), Penelope’s wise nursemaid. The crowd thins out a bit in Acts II and III, with stand-outs Jason McStoots playing Eumete, Ulisse’s shepherd; Zachary Wilder, a BEMF favorite, playing Telemaco (Ulisse’s son); Aaron Sheehan’s Durimaco; and Mireille Asselin as Minerva. As a disguised Ulisse, Colin Balzer was cunning, crafty, calculating. Asselin was charming, but her voice early on was too quiet for the hall (this improved in the second half). The three suitors, almost stooges, were fun to watch and to hear.

Featured leads from the other operas this week appear here in small roles, including Amanda Forsythe, a star of Poppea, and Aaron Sheehan and soprano Mireille Asselin, both in Orfeo. Some, like McStoots, are in three productions (including the Vespers). This is a company whose members know each other’s abilities, voices, and personalities, and who on Sunday gave every indication that this week would be a really extraordinary one (get tickets now!)

This evening the universally celebrated Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI combine forces with the Mexican folklore ensemble, Tembembe Ensemble Continuo, to kick off the Festival Concert Week with an intoxicating program of music inspired by the “discovery” of the New World. The performance will be at 8 p.m. in NEC’s Jordan Hall.

In the first of the festival’s Late Night Concerts, tonight at 11 p.m., Monica Huggett, Harry van der Kamp, Stephen Stubbs and Friends explore “The Vocal Concerto”.

And don’t forget the world-class exhibition, sixteen main concerts, Organ and Keyboard Mini-Festivals (at the MFA), and a hundred “Fringe Concerts.”

For tickets, contact the BEMF Box Office at 617-661-1812 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or the Jordan Hall Box Office at 617-585-1260.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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