Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir marked, in 2017, the 350th-anniversary of the birth of the composer after whom the ensemble is named with a pilgrimage around Europe and the USA promoting the cause of the three surviving operas – acknowledged as the first masterpieces of the genre. This release represents the record of a third of that project, in featuring Monteverdi’s penultimate stage-work, which conflates the same mythological impetus as his first-surviving, Orfeo, with the earthier, quotidian motivations of ordinary human characters in The Coronation of Poppea.
Few musicians have done more to advance Monteverdi’s cause than Gardiner, over more than half a century. Surprisingly he has not tackled this opera before, but this timely survey constitutes a suitably authoritative account of a multi-layered music-drama, informed by the vitality of continued engagement with the text of the work as handed down.
The recording stems from performances in Wrocław on three consecutive days at the climax of that pilgrimage which ensures dramatic but poised execution of the score. Extraneous noise has been carefully excised, and with clear and close-focussed recording the resulting account is as even and consistent as one could expect from the studio. It benefits, tellingly, from the exploitation of space at the National Forum of Music’s auditorium, for example by setting Giove in some scenes at a distance from the other singers, to denote divine authority.
After the idiomatic and well-characterised Prologue among the allegorical figures of Human Fragility, Fortune, and Love, Lucile Richardot’s Penelope sets the tone, with her steady opening lament which charts an assured way through her conflicted feelings at awaiting the return of Ulysses for ten years after the end of the Trojan War. Richardot maintains a forlorn dignity as she presides over the suitors’ overtures and attempts at the contest with the eponymous’s bow, and entertains (hopelessly as she still thinks) Eumete’s revelation that the stranger among them is Ulysses in disguise, without resorting to self-pity or hysteria. Furio Zanasi makes a fairly gentle, and not much less vulnerable, impression as Ulysses, singing more from the head than the chest, and so not projecting his part vociferously – as well he might not after a wearying decade finding his way back to Ithaca after the end of the war. His and Richardot’s portrayals finally, and satisfyingly, align in their tender and intimate duet at the end of the opera.
In between comes the more excitable alacrity of Francisco Fernández-Rueda’s shepherd, Eumete, who first discovers that Ulysses has returned, providing balanced contrast, and an account of Telemacho (the son of Penelope and Ulysses) by Krystian Adam that encompasses more evenness and maturity than the somewhat Hamlet-like, and delinquent interpretation made of him in some interpretations. A different sort of contrast is effected by the skittish young lovers Melanto and Eurimaco, achieved with pleasingly unaffected and sweet-toned singing by Anna Dennis and Zachary Wilder respectively. The suitors to Penelope are perhaps unexpectedly restrained as they finally abandon their mission after failing to draw Ulysses’s bow, and even Iro’s recourse to his preferred gluttony in Robert Burt’s monologue at the opening of Act Three avoids not only caricature, but probably even delineating a clearer distinction from the nobler characters which would have been desirable.
In what could be said to be a rather humanistic reading of the score, it is left to the gods to exert comparatively more strenuous, dramatic effect. Gianluca Buratto could be even more imperiously sonorous than he is in sounding Nettuno’s complaints from the depths of the sea (though he achieves seductive subtlety elsewhere, as the suitor Antinoo) but John Taylor Ward’s Giove bears lithe-voiced authority, and Francesca Boncompagni is impressive as Giunone; Hana Blažiková’s Minerva is a touch brittle.
Sir John Eliot’s probing of the opera yields a consistently vibrant performance that marks the difference between regular pacing of the direct proclamation of text in recitative passages, and those more elaborate sections where the music breaks out into song or an instrumental interlude. The continuo group (which comprises by far the largest part of the instrumental element) is attractively varied between the silvery, gamba-like tone of the strings, and the more astringent attack of the plucked instruments. The interludes with full ensemble, and sometimes also the chorus, are crisp and energetic, and draw upon other collections of Monteverdi’s music to fill in the gaps of the score as received (since there is no surviving manuscript from the first performances in the composer’s lifetime). Gardiner justifies his choices in the essay provided in the accompanying annotation, although the renditions themselves are sufficient testimony to their suitability as they bear eloquent witness to Monteverdi’s theatrical instincts even away from the opera house. The glissandos accompanying the startling appearance of Giove’s eagle in Act Two/Scene Eight are evidently improvised as the non-notated clashes of sound are reminiscent of Penderecki’s aleatoric style.
If René Jacobs’s recording is more emotionally charged (with, admittedly, some rather more prominent names among the singers), and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s is more leisurely (though achieving a certain theatrical effusiveness with that) then Gardiner’s version inhabits something of a middle-course, with its more ritualistic calm that certainly stands up to repeated listening. Some may prefer the more extrovert, Baroque tendencies of the other versions, but this SDG release sets down as considered and quietly direct an interpretation as many listeners will surely regard is warranted by this score with its well-nigh equal balance between words and music. Text and translation are helpfully included in this sturdy book-like presentation.