The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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Mitridate Re di Ponto: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1770)

michael-spyres-as-mitridate-c2a9-roh-photo-by-bill-cooper.jpg

★★★★

(Royal Opera House, 7 July 2017)

Mitridate, king of Pontus, is missing, presumed dead. His two sons, Farnace and Sifare, have returned from the battlefield to skulk around their father’s palace and engage in the traditional pastime of operatic royalty: viz. each scheming to beat the other to the throne. Farnace, billed as the ‘evil’ son, is considering an alliance with the wicked Romans. Sifare, the ‘good’ son, is deeply in love with his father’s intended bride, the beautiful princess Aspasia. Plots are well underway when – shock horror! – it turns out that Mitridate isn’t actually dead at all, but has allowed such rumours to spread in the hope of testing his sons’ loyalty. When he returns to Pontus, the scene is set for a right royal show-down. One of Mozart’s first operas, written when he was only fourteen, this has its issues – numerous issues – as a piece of work, but it’s presented in the Royal Opera House’s classic and extravagant production, with a really splendid cast.

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Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Lucy Crowe

★★★★

(La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall, 28 November 2016)

Calistos are like London buses: you wait for months and then two come along at once. Mere weeks after English Touring Opera’s vivacious production, David Bates and La Nuova Musica presented their own version of Cavalli’s tale of lust, disguise and confusion. Conceived as a semi-staged performance, to make maximum use of the Wigmore’s limited space, this Calisto boasted a cast to die for and delivered some great voices; yet it didn’t eclipse ETO quite as thoroughly as I’d expected.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Sarah Connolly

(Barbican, Academy of Ancient Music with Robert Howarth, 4 October 2014)

★★★★

When a friend asked if I wanted to see Monteverdi’s Poppea at the Barbican on Saturday, I said yes immediately. Poppea is a landmark in the history of opera: the first to weave a story around historical characters rather than myths or saints. I’ve only seen one production so far: the version directed by William Christie, with Philippe Jaroussky as Nerone, Danielle de Niese as Poppea and Max Cencic as Ottone. I haven’t written about it yet because I’ve been biding my time until I felt I had a better understanding of it; and this semi-staged version at the Barbican was the perfect way to put the Jaroussky version into context. Its abiding legacy will be a couple of extremely strong performances which I can use as a benchmark in the future.

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