Mention the term “17th-century opera” to the occasional operagoer and you’re likely to see the quizzical look of someone imagining quaint ancient music emerging from a dusty score recovered from a forgotten corner of some ancient archive. The early progenitors of opera, such as Claudio Monteverdi and Francesco Cavalli, worked in vastly different musical and theatrical styles than the more familiar operatic composers of later centuries like Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner.
In the last 45 years or so, revived interest and scholarship in early opera have moved those dusty scores off the shelves and into modern productions that have intrigued contemporary audiences. A notable example from opera history reappears this weekend at the Carousel Theatre, courtesy of the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre: Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses), from 1640.
Although opera as an art form had begun to coalesce in the years around 1600, the earliest works were done not for the public theater but for the courts of Florence and Mantua. This began to change dramatically in Venice in 1637 as public theaters were constructed for commercial operatic productions. The well-known 70-year-old Monteverdi, who had been working in Venice since 1613 as the maestro di capella at St. Mark’s Basilica, was soon lured back into the burgeoning Venetian opera world. In the four years before his death in 1643, he composed three new works for the Venice theater, the first of which was Ulysses.
Following the performances in and around 1640, Ulysses fell into obscurity until the score was rediscovered in the Vienna National Library in 1881. The music, a pre-Baroque evolution from earlier Renaissance intermezzo forms, often requires first-time listeners to make an adjustment to the different concepts of melody and harmony found there. However, once acquainted with the style, listeners generally find the subtleties and complexities of the form’s vocal expression and instrumental flavor a revelation.
The libretto of Ulysses, by Giacomo Badoaro, was taken from the last portion, books 13-23, of Homer’s The Odyssey. In that section, Ulysses returns home to the island of Ithaca only to discover dangerous suitors attempting to gain the hand of his wife, Penelope, and his throne and fortune. Disguised as a beggar, Ulysses plans his revenge, slays the suitors, and eventually convinces Penelope of his identity.
While the scholarly enlightenment of rarely seen works is one reason for tackling operas such as Ulysses, UTOT director James Marvel finds there are other motivations. One is the large casts of early opera, which offer a lot of roles for student singers.
“This is the first year since my arrival in 2011 that we have not done a Mozart opera,” Marvel says. “The voice faculty expressed an interest in doing earlier music—Handel, in particular. Neither [UTOT music director and conductor Kevin Class] nor I has ever done Handel so we decided to put the idea of that off for another year or two. … Due to its lighter orchestration, early music is ideal for younger voices. However, despite being light, it does require a fair amount of technical virtuosity. We have lighter voices in the program this year so early music seemed like a wise choice. Furthermore, I had done a very successful production of Ulysses for Wolf Trap Opera in D.C. a number of years ago and felt like we could make a success of it here as well.”
Another major plus for Marvel and UTOT was the availability of an existing set that can support a modern visual treatment.
“The physical set is the same as the recent CBT production of The Crucible in the Carousel Theater, partly because we didn’t have enough money for a set or set designer,” Marvel says. “However, we have covered the back walls with projection fabric because we are bringing back S. Katy Tucker to design video projections. Katy did our The Rape of Lucretia, La Boheme, Cosi fan tutte, The Medium, and Suor Angelica.”
For audiences wishing to explore the evolution of opera in the theatrical comfort of a modern visual context—and immerse themselves in the pre-Baroque wonders of Monteverdi—Ulysses should be one of the must-sees of the season.
UT Opera presents Ulysses at the Carousel Theatre (1714 Andy Holt Ave.) on Thursday, Nov. 10, and Friday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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