The journey of the opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is much longer and nearly as arduous as that of its eponymous hero, containing as many twists and turns as the islands between Troy and Ulysses’s homeland of Ithaca. It is based on the second half of the Odyssey, itself a remnant from pre-classical oral poetry. Having received written form by numerous authors in ancient Greece, it remained iconic through the middle ages, even for writers like Dante who did not speak Greek and thus could not have read it, and was finally brought back to light during the Renaissance, often through a Roman lens (as with many other Baroque operas, the names of characters and gods in Ulysses are the Roman translations or equivalents). Just as there is uncertainty over the identity of Homer and debate over whether the author of the Iliad and Odyssey are in fact the same person, so does the opera come out of a shadowy provenance. The writer of this libretto was Giacomo Badoaro, a nobleman and amateur poet, who was a member of the libertine and provocative intellectual circle named The Academy of the Incogniti (the unknowns) who were responsible for the texts of many early operas. The collaboration between librettist and composer was not entirely straightforward in this case, for it seems that Monteverdi altered the original text in numerous ways. In fact, these revisions prompted Badoaro to write that he could hardly recognize his own work in Monteverdi’s hands. While a dozen versions of the libretto survive, there is no original score remaining from any of the three known productions in the 1640 and 1641 seasons. The only musical manuscript is a copy from around 1670, originating from the Hapsburg court in Vienna. It isn’t clear if that manuscript was associated with a specific performance or if it was purely a collector’s item, and because of its unknown provenance and divergence from the librettos, for a while after its discovery it was generally assumed not to be the work of Monteverdi. It contains many deviations from the libretto including a reordered structure, omitted scenes, and a completely new prologue. The new prologue maintains the conventional use of gods and other anthropomorphic incarnations to discuss themes presented in the opera, yet it replaces what was once a preview of the events as they will unfold and takes a darker turn by casting Human Frailty as the protagonist and Time, Fortune, and Love as its constant tormentors.
Into the murky world of reconstructing the original form and intent of the opera, any production must add the effort to animate a centuries-old retelling of an epic that is itself several millennia in age. Bringing life to ancient forms involves the same mixture of objective study and subjectively imbuing the work with one’s own humanity. This was as true with 17th-century attempts to create musical drama as it is with current efforts to revive it, since the inventors of opera were consciously modeling their work after classical authors and what was perceived as their modes of performance.
The beginning of opera is often chronicled as coinciding auspiciously with the dawn of the 17th century and the ushering in of the Baroque, giving the impression of a clear historical path to opera as we know it today. The work of pioneer composers such as Peri, Caccini, and Monteverdi in the first decade of the 17th century did not immediately lead to an explosion of opera houses and premieres of musical masterpieces. These first operas were composed for the private entertainment of courts in Florence and Mantua and were mainly the discussion of elite intellectual academies. By the end of the first decade of this new century, Monteverdi had written two operas, Orfeo and Arianna, the first of which survives in an elaborate publication that seems to have been mostly for commemorative purposes, and the latter, though extremely popular and influential, has disappeared, with the exception of a single lament by the title character. Not long after the performance of these works, Monteverdi left the court of Mantua to become music director at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and neither he nor the sponsors of these early experiments would continue their ventures into musical theater. As a republic, Venice did not sponsor lavish court entertainments; however, in 1637 it opened the first public theaters and began producing operas as entrepreneurial efforts in a manner that we would recognize today. The efforts of the first few seasons are shrouded in mystery, since all that survives of these operas are the librettos. What remains of the music by the authors of these works, Francesco Manelli and Benedetto Ferarri, is a small amount of very beautiful, mainly vocal, chamber music, which gives us only a glimpse into the birth of the second wave of opera. As the first seasons of public opera went by, the absence of a piece by Monteverdi was evidently noticed, and Badoaro’s libretto for Ulysses was written specifically to entice the elder statesman of Venetian musical life to contribute to this new genre.
The avant-garde music of the early 17th century was a move away from strict Renaissance polyphony as embodied by the compositions of Palestrina into a fluid and flexible style where the text was now paramount. This inversion of the relationship between words and music was consistently spoken of as a return to the ideals of the ancient orators. While Monteverdi and his colleagues did not actually resurrect Greek drama, they did bring to life a completely new art form. The same obstacles faced by these composers aiming to create a neo-classical aesthetic are inevitably found in modern attempts to revive music from distant times. Such a process involves a balancing act of adhering to either the letter or spirit of the original. A reconciliation of these opposites is to be found in any interpretation; just as the translation of an idiom from one language to another involves an understanding of its author as well as the audience, so does any form of communication embrace intent as well as reception. If we are to take seriously the numerous discourses of the time on the the primacy of text over music (such as Monteverdi’s preface stating that the music is only the servant of the words), then performing this repertoire in the native language of the audience must be a valid option. What is lost in translation is often self-evident, but gaining a direct and immediate connection to the text is certainly significant not only to our understudying of the narrative, but valuable to the essence of this music as well.
The world of the ancient gods and heroes was a familiar one to Baroque audiences, and a useful one to authors, allowing them to use characters with whom the public had already established a relationship. A modern equivalent may be found in movie franchises where the back-stories and personalities are known from the start and the impulse of the story lies not in establishing characters, but rather in playing with the given parameters. One can easily see the effect of this when considering how successful any James Bond or Star Trek movie would be if we had not already seen countless versions before, or the difference in reaction to the more recent Star Wars movies between those who had seen the older ones and those who had not. Thus when Human Frailty rails against the tribulations of the world, and Penelope begins the opera with her lament, an audience that has read the Iliad and Odyssey already understands the symbolism of the prologue and has formed an emotional bond with the protagonist far beyond what is actually presented in the text and music of the opera itself. The significance of this hero was taken one step further by observers at the time, finding a correlation between Ulysses’s return home after twenty years and Monteverdi’s return to opera after an even longer absence. Observing Penelope’s principal role in the opera is not a modern revisionist’s view, for while the original epic and this opera are named after Ulysses, even 16th- and 17th-century authors commented on Penelope’s prominence by giving her the title role in their versions of this part of the Odyssey. At the beginning of the opera itself, Ulysses has already finished his long journey homeward and landed in Ithaca, yet it is still left to Penelope to defend their kingdom.