Δευτέρα, 13 Αυγούστου 2012

T-10: Monteverdi's Ulysses.


So, the Summer Olympics of 2012 in London were just wrapped up and have taken their spot in Olympic history – whatever that may end up being – and in a couple of days my short lived vacation will end as well, marking my first ever summer without a major trip abroad (it was a minor one) and without the many leisurely days at our summer house (they were few); and I have to start thinking about organizing the remaining four months until 2012 too is officially over and I realized that – once again – I didn’t fulfill my promise to write more often. Well, I did write, actually, I just didn’t publish the results in the blog sphere because they were totally irrelevant. Trying to come up with subjects for a blog entry is actually tough work. I have no idea how the other bloggers do it. I mean, I don’t have time! And when I do, thanks to my current assignment, I am so utterly exhausted that instead of trying to conjure up the words, I simply burn my brain cells in front of the TV or read best sellers! I never read best sellers, but now I do understand why people read them. It’s a very good way to wind down from a hard days’ work. A lot easier than trying to write something decent yourself and then have the audacity to put it out there for the public to scrutinize! Well, as far as I know, I only have a handful – literally – of readers and only a couple have offered some feedback, so I am not concerned about the millions of readers who do not read me.
But, two days ago I did come up with an idea that will provide some writing material, at least for ten entries. It is an old fashioned and extremely obvious idea, but I never proclaimed I was going to revolutionize the field of blog writing, so it’s fine with me. And, to be perfectly honest with you, it worked for me once in April, so I figured: Why not do it again? And the idea is simple and bullet proof: A Top 10 list of my favorite operas! Admit it, you knew I was going to say that… Right? But it’s a great way of filling my time with something creative and at the same time the few readers who bother reading me will get to know me a bit better through this “series”. So today marks the first entry in that list – which, of course is going to be the last number, since there is no point in starting with one’s favorite thing; it kills the suspense. By the way, feel free to guess on the remaining spots of this list if you feel like it!

So, my number 10 in this list is… Claudio Monteverdi’s “Il Ritorno d’ Ulisse in patria” – or in plain English “Ulysses’ return home”. BE WARNED, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FURTHER DOWN! It is the second of the three operas by this masters’ pen that survives as a whole and it can be found relatively often on the stages all over the world. There’s not much to be said about the plot. Basically it is an almost literal transfer of the last rhapsodies of Homer’s “Odyssey” into music and stage action – including the gods! There is one little addition that doesn’t exist in Homer’s original, which is the subplot of Melanto and Eurimaco, a rather sweet story of youthful love, which has some bearing during the first act, but then almost entirely disappears. And of course the dog is also missing… Well, I suppose that depending on the staging, a “dog” may or may not appear when Ulysses returns home, but there is no musical scene that indicates this beautiful moment of the original. Other than that there’s pretty much everything else: Ulysses’ return with the help of the Phaecians, Neptune’s anger about that, the faithful shepherd Eumete who remains true to his original master, Telemaco the son, the suitors (downsized to three so as to not overcrowd the already crowded cast) and obviously the constant Penelope, who is also the true protagonist of this story in the first place.
And then there is the Prologue… One of the main reasons I love this opera is its Prologue. In typical early opera fashion, the work begins with a “dedication”. But because this opera was performed in a public theatre in Venice the dedication takes the form of a philosophical quest into the nature of man and the powers that control it, instead of a dedication to whomever had commissioned the work. According to the Prologue these powers are Time, Fortune and Love and as it is said: man will be rendered “weak, wretched and bewildered” by them. True enough and truer even more in the case of Ulysses! Though it may not be the most complex piece of music Monteverdi composed for this particular part, or the most memorable, it is a gripping – even haunting – piece, which is why it made it into my “Music for my Funeral” list (see the appropriate blog entry for that one). Its simplicity and the repetition of Man’s stanzas between the intersections of the Powers give it a sense of finality and – curiously – optimism. You know that what they are saying is true: no matter whether one believes in coincidences or not, Time, Fortune and Love are the guiding forces behind our existence and try as we might, we cannot escape them. So, in ten minutes time one has a summation of Man’s existence and it’s so greatly put that one doesn’t necessarily feel bad about it! Why would one? When there is such great music involved in this existence!



Once the Prologue is over and done with, we get to the main part of the plot and after the first scenes at the palace, we are introduced to one of my favorite characters in the story: Neptune. The God of the Seas is such a sympathetic kind of guy! Well, obviously he is not good to Ulysses, making it virtually impossible for him to return to Ithaca (honestly, why Ulysses had to live on an island… is beyond me!), at least not without the interference of some other deity, in this case, Zeus. Who else? What happens with Neptune in this particular instance is that, because he is overruled by his older and slightly more powerful brother – the man carries a lightning bolt, for Heaven’s sake, he could easily electrocute Neptune if he wanted to – his exasperation is almost like a little child’s whose favorite toy has been forcibly taken away. And, let’s face it, Ulysses is nothing more than a toy in the hands of Neptune who enjoys seeing him suffer (well, he doesn’t always suffer, if we are to believe Homer’s account of the happenstances on Calypso’s island). But, because he is a god, we know that as soon as Ulysses is out of the way, Neptune will find himself some other poor soul to torment and because he too knows that, he “allows” Ulysses to return home. What a gracious gesture! He does take his revenge on the Phaecians though, by turning the ship that carried Ulysses to Ithaca into stone when it entered the harbor…






Anyway, Ulysses is safely and soundly stepping on his homeland, when another deity makes her appearance: Minerva. Now she is the know-it-all of the play and she does hold a lot of strings in her hands. And, as an added bonus perhaps, she is the reason Ulysses didn’t perish in the fields of Troy or somewhere on his way back home, because the virgin goddess of Wisdom takes a liking to the cunning Ulysses and has him under her direct protection. Which is also why, completely unabashedly, she presents herself to him – first as a happy shepherd boy, then in her true form – and tells him what to expect and what to do. And when this scene is over too, there is no doubt left to the audience that Ulysses will prevail! I mean, Zeus and Minerva are backing him up, how can this possibly go wrong? So, one has to ask oneself at this point: why on Earth do we keep watching the opera? We know how it ends and this isn’t even the second act! Well, we keep watching because it has some of the most heavenly music ever composed and because there is Penelope…





Penelope is, without any doubt, a universal symbol: the wife, whose husband left her with an infant in her arms, herself perhaps not any older than an adolescent, fought a war for ten years for a dubious cause, then got caught up on the way back, because he simply can’t keep his mouth shut, and yet she, braving odds and fighting suitors, constantly awaits him, still believing him to be alive, even though the evidence might point to the contrary. Why? The only reasonable explanation I can give is that Ulysses was so good in bed, she simply didn’t want anyone else! (He must’ve been good, though, just ask Calypso…) Ok, that definitely wasn’t the reason, but it is weird. Not even one lover? These were some twenty years! And Ulysses wasn’t exactly… faithful to her (Calypso, again… they even had a son together, Telegonos!). Actually, if one does a comparative analysis of the characters involved in this whole Trojan war affair, then one realizes that Penelope is the opposite to Clytemnestra, who not only murders her husband upon his return, but takes a lover to avenge him even more – of course Clytemnestra’s hatred towards Agamemnon has entirely different roots, but still, she ends up betraying him as well. Anyway, Penelope is constant, never wavers and still believes in her husband’s return. And she is wise. The sad Queen, who if it were a different opera and a different Queen, would have died singing “Thy hand Belinda…” Penelope is a striking character and is probably the only one that undergoes a major change in the entire plot of this opera: from sad, almost devastated, she ends up in utter bliss and happiness, a state she probably had forgotten what it felt like. Both her first stage appearance with her lament and her final one with Ulysses are impressive and brilliantly set to music. Her lament is plain, but with moments of deep pain and sadness, intertwined with short memories of happier days. Her last aria in the final act, a much needed release of energy and joyfulness: it is not only the Queen that rejoices in Ulysses’ return, but Nature along with her. And the final duet between the two protagonists is truly mesmerizingly beautiful one has to hear it to believe it!






Of all the other characters in this opera the one that stands out is Iro. He is the comic relief to the drama unfolding in the main storyline. He is a stutterer, as is tradition in those early operas as well. And he is the worst example of a man: base, filthy, interested only in having fun and filling his belly. He amuses the suitors and that’s why they let him stay at the palace. His devastation at the death of the suitors is almost comical; I say almost, because deep down Iro manages to produce some pity in the heart of the listener towards him, simply by being so terribly honest about himself. He is an opportunist and an untalented one too. But instead of learning from his past mistakes, he decides to be miserable. He disappears into the night and into the back of our heads. People like him lurk everywhere around us – especially here in Greece…
Obviously all is well that ends well and with this particular opera that is exactly the case. The universe is in its place when Ulysses finally holds his beloved wife in his arms again and they sing of their love for each other. The librettist has cleverly removed any references to ehem… past transgressions on the part of Ulysses (he doesn’t even mention Xena the Warrior Princess, which is a loss). Because, again, Ulysses is yet another universal symbol: not of constancy exactly, but of perseverance and balls… sorry – brains! And, probably the most important message this particular character has ever stood for is the love of one’s homeland. Otherwise, why would he have risked his life to return to Ithaca, when other… opportunities… arose…      



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