Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses
After ten years fighting in the Trojan War and ten more years wandering on the seas, Ulysses has finally returned home. But everything has changed during his absence, and instead of a hero’s welcome, Ulysses finds his palace occupied by rival kings keen to seduce his wife Penelope and kill his son. Will he be able to regain his wife and home?
Based on the final chapters of Homer’s timeless poem the Odyssey, Monteverdi’s late masterpiece is an epic yet intimate story of love, constancy and sacrifice.
Fernando Guimarães, last seen in Australia in the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Handel: Heaven and Harmony, stars as Ulysses, a role he has sung to international acclaim. Australian mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby, whose ravishing tone and deeply moving performances have earned her rave reviews around the world, joins him as Penelope.
Monteverdi The Return of Ulysses
Sung in Italian with English surtitles
Thurs 13 June 7pm | Sat 15 June 2pm | Sun 16 June 5pm | Tues 18 June 7pm | Wed 19 June 7pm |
City Recital Hall Sydney
This performance will run for approximately 3 hours including an interval.
There will be a talk about the history of the piece 45 minutes before each performance.
Fernando Guimarães Ulysses
Catherine Carby Penelope
Lauren Lodge-Campbell Ericlea, Minerva, Fortuna, Sirena I
Roberta Diamond Amore, Melanto, Giunone
Nicholas Tolputt Feace I, Pisandro, Marittimo I
Brenton Spiteri Telemaco, Feaco II, Celeste
Mark Wilde Iro, Marittimo II
Jacob Lawrence Giove, Eumete
Douglas Kelly Eurimaco, Anfinomo, Marittimo III
Wade Kernot Tempo, Nettuno, Antinoo
Erin Helyard Conductor
Chas Rader-Shieber Director
Melanie Liertz Designer
Nicholas Rayment Lighting Designer
Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567. He was the son of a doctor and the eldest of five children. Not much is known about his youth. Claudio and his brother studied music with a Marc Antonio Ingegneri who was the cathedral composer, though there is no evidence that either sang in the choir.
Monteverdi was a prodigy, publishing his first work, Cantiunculae sacrae, a volume of sacred songs, as a 15 year-old. His second book was published the following year and in 1584 his third book was published by the Venetian house which would become his main publisher, Vincenti & Amadino. Three years later, aged 19, he published his First Book of Madrigals.
AS he became more famous, his music was attacked by Bolgnese theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi, who in 1600 and 1603 pointed to Monteverdi as a perpetrator of crimes against music. When the Fifth Book of Madrigals appeared in 1605, pehaps in reply to Artusi, opinion sided with Monteverdi. Not only was this fifth volume reprinted within a year, the publisher also reprinted all of Monteverdi’s earlier books.
Two more children were born to Claudio and Claudia, and with their debts mounting, Monteverdi complained about irregular payment of his salary. In 1607 he presented L’Orfeo, but had little opportunity to enjoy the triumph of his first opera. Claudia died in September of that year, after a long illness, and Monteverdi was left a widower with his two surviving children, sons aged six and three. He was 40 years old.
He stopped composing, but was coaxed back by a letter promising fame and a prince’s gratitude. He buried his sorrows in work - new opera (Arianna), an intermezzo and a ballet for the celebration of a royal wedding. Despite extremely stressful working conditions, his music was a great success. However, this could not alter his depression and Monteverdi went home to Cremona in such a collapsed state that his father wrote to the Duchess of Mantua with a request that Claudio be released from his duties.
The request was denied and Monteverdi was summoned to return, though with a substantial pay rise. By 1610 he was back in Mantua and obviously casting about for another job. The need to find this became urgent when, in 1612, Vincenzo died; his son Francesco ascended the throne and dismissed Monteverdi. After more than twenty years of service in the Gonzaga ducal court, Monteverdi returned to Cremona with the equivalent of one month’s salary in his pocket: his life savings.
The following year the maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice died. Monteverdi applied for the post and was appointed on the spot. This new job was huge. The Basilica at San Marco was the largest musical establishment in Italy, with regularly employed singers and instrumentalists, and many others for special events. Music had to be provided – composed, rehearsed, performed – for about forty festivals per year. In his mid-forties, he was in his prime not only in the own composition but also in how he hired musicians for more services and expanded the music library. After three years he was granted a ten-year contract. He was happy – financially comfortable, famous, appreciated by his employers, and loved by the public.
By 1620 Venice was a ferment of music composition – there were six composers employed by the Basilica itself. Monteverdi was in his fifties, secure in his job and venerated at home and abroad. As well as his church composition, he wrote solo motets, duets and other more easily performed works for various anthologies of church music. Heinrich Schütz visited from Germany in 1628 to learn from Monteverdi the new art of opera and church music. In 1630 the plague swept through Venice, killing 40,000 but sparing Claudio. He was worn down by the strain, however, and in 1632 was ordained a priest.
Just when it seemed that his career was beginning to fade, Venice was evolving into a city of opera. In 1637 the first public opera house opened with Manelli’s Andromeda. Soon after, several others were opened and Monteverdi was not one to be left out. Aged 70, Monteverdi’s composing took on a new life. Arianna was revived in 1639 (though was subsequently lost); a series of new works followed, including Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. He published his Eighth Book of Madrigals and a collection of church music. In 1642, at the age of 75, he composed the Coronation of Poppea.
He died in Venice of a malignant fever on 29 November 1643. The city mourned him with an impressive funeral ceremony held in two churches. San Marco and Santa Maria sei Frari, where he was buried. His publisher Vincenti collected the manuscripts of all his unpublished church music and published them in 1651. Also that year, Poppea performed in far-away Naples.
Like many great composers of the Baroque, Monteverdi’s work was largely neglected after his death and regained full recognition only in the 20th Century.
Combining an action-packed plot with a musical exploration of the full range of human emotions, The Return of Ulysses broke new musical ground at its Venice premiere in 1640, written during the last five years of Monteverdi’s life.
The story, taken from the second half of Homer's Odyssey, tells how constancy and virtue are ultimately rewarded, and treachery and deception are overcome.
After his long journey home from the Trojan Wars, Ulysses, King of Ithaca, finally returns after 20 years to his kingdom where he finds that much has changed, including a trio of villainous suitors are importuning his faithful queen, Penelope. It’s a story with lots of contemporary references – about refugees and how we treat them; about being away and trying to find a home, and runs the full gamut of emotions from comedy to tragedy.
Monteverdi's flexible writing for the voice shifts between conversational sung speech (recitative), pure song (aria) and a combination of the two (arioso) in a brilliant way of conveying the characters’ changing emotions, their personalities and social status. The orchestration is magnificent and includes the haunting, rich-toned lirone and the delicate theorbo and harp.
The Return of Ulysses is Monteverdi at his best.