William Christie and Les Arts Florissants recorded Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in Aix-en-Provence, five years before their Madrid recording. The Aix production was directed by Adrian Noble and featured real life couple Kreśimir Śpicer and Marijana Mijanović as Ulisse and Penelope.
The designs are simple. The same set is used throughout; two walls and some amphorae. Occasionally something is lowered from the fly loft. This is used very effectively in Act 2 Scene 1 where Minerva is retrieving Telemaco from Sparta. They are on a sort of swing in front of a wavy cloth back drop. It’s simple but effective. Apart from a few moments like that the burden of conveying changes of mood and scene falls on the very effective lighting plot. Costumes are mostly vaguely Oriental though Penelope gets a black sheath dress, which works rather well as she must be six feet tall, and Rachid Ben Abdeslam as L’Umana Fragilita, doesn’t get one at all.
The main thrust of the direction is toward creating energy and emotion. This is facilitated by having a mostly young and athletic cast. Zachary Stains as Eurimaco even manages a somersault and there is some fun interaction between him and the rather fetching Melanto of Katalin Károlyi. There’s serious eye candy here for people of most tastes. There’s also some very good singing and acting headed up by Mijanović’s dark, smoky and truly noble reading of Penelope. Śpicer is also rock solid and with singers as good as Cyril Auvity as Telemaco and actors as good as Robert Burt as the comic Iro it’s a treat to listen to. Christie and Les Arts Florissants are, of course, splendid. If there’s a weakness it’s perhaps a failure to extract much comedy from the silly bits. This is fairly unrelentingly serious in tone.
Video direction is by Humphrey Burton and is pretty typical. There are too many close ups though in this production that’s not too annoying. Picture quality is better than average for DVD. The sound options are Dolby surround and PCM stereo. The latter is more detailed and spacious and in every way preferable. There’s an 18 minute interview with Christie which is worth watching. The booklet has a synopsis, a track list and an essay. Subtitle options are English, French, Spanish and Italian.
It’s difficult to choose between this and the later recording. Both are strongly cast. Maybe the later production has more striking designs and it’s certainly better filmed but this version has Mijanović in a truly searing performance. Best see them both.