Boston Baroque’s Monteverdi Offers Pair of Debuts

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Boston Baroque and artistic director Martin Pearlman perform at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall.
Boston Baroque and artistic director Martin Pearlman perform at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
By Marvin J. Ward

BOSTON – A performance on April 25 in the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall by Boston Baroque, shaped by the hands of its founder and artistic director Martin Pearlman from the harpsichord, marked two significant debuts: the first appearance in the U.S. of the impressive Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães in the title role, and that of Pearlman’s new performance edition of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland). It proved to be the most accurate, authentic, and convincing revival of an early Italian opera I have ever witnessed. 

Fernando Guimarães (Ulisse) and Jennifer Rivera (Penelope).
Tenor F. Guimarães, mezzo-soprano J. Rivera. (Clive Grainger)

The performance was a semi-staged version, with no sets or drops. As a replacement for the massive theatrical machinery in use at the time of its composition and Venice premiere in 1640, there was a simple, long, and narrow transparent scrim – light blue, slightly billowing and painted with white clouds draped from the top of the stage’s organ case to its floor. It suggested the heavens where the gods reside, and behind which they generally first appeared. The same procedure was used for some other characters, with different lighting that made the clouds disappear. Still other characters appeared from both sides of the stage, climbing onto squarish platforms of heights that increased from front to rear.

The opera was sung in the original Italian with English translations cleverly displayed on large LCD TV screens on tall stands in front of both sides of the proscenium, a feature that the necks of audience members  – certainly this one’s – surely found preferable to the standard above-the-stage proscenium position: it was so much easier to watch the action while reading, and thus connect the subtleties in the latter with the sung words. There were several instances where the actions and gestures did not match up with the text because of the differing word orders in the two languages, however.

Fernando Guimarães, Jennifer Rivera and Aaron Sheehan.
Guimarães, Rivera, and Aaron Sheehan at the dress rehearsal.

The voices and diction of all the singers were superb. I was struck simultaneously by the variety among those in the same registers and their blend. Jennifer Rivera sang Penelope, Ulisse’s faithful wife, who fended off three suitors: Antinoo (bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas), Pisandro (tenor Owen McIntosh), and Anfinomo (tenor Jonas Budris).  Rivera was assisted by her nurse Ericlea (mezzo-soprano Krista River) and maid Melanto (mezzo Abigail Nims), all for obvious reasons often appearing together. The loyal swineherd (here transformed into a shepherd) Eumete was sung by tenor Daniel Auchincloss, and the glutton Iro by haute-contre Marc Molomot. Tenor Daniel Shirley sang Eurimaco, Melanto’s lover in the small diversionary sub-plot involving their affair and visions of an idyllic future together.

The Phoenician sailors delivering Ulisse to the island of Ithaca – the story presented by the work is his arrival home, which ends Homer’s Odyssey – were played by countertenor Christopher Lowrey, who also sang L’Umana fragilità in the Prologue, and Budris and McIntosh. Telemaco, Ulisse’s son, was sung by tenor Aaron Sheehan. In addition to L’Umana fragilità, the gods commenting on events, controlling the humans, and interacting with them include Il Tempo, sung by Portuguese bass João Fernandes, who also sang Nettuno, Fortuna (soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad), Amore (soprano Sara Heaton), and Minerva (mezzo Leah Wool). Giove was sung by McIntosh and Giunone by Tengblad.

Boston Baroque artistic director Martin Pearlman. (Susan Wilson)
Boston Baroque artistic director Martin Pearlman. (Susan Wilson)

Mark Streshinsky’s clever staging, with constant movement of the singers, held the attention so successfully that only on two or three occasions did the audience interrupt the flow of the action and singing to applaud an individual performance. Occasionally, two activities occurred simultaneously, as when the sailors played cards while Ulisse was waking, regaining consciousness, and wondering where he was. The costumes, designed by Charles Schoonmaker, were tastefully modern and counterbalanced the distancing effect of the ancient Greek story that mixed gods and humans, period instrument and music. Several moments of comic relief were provided by Minerva, disguised as a shepherd caressing toy sheep and then shedding the coat to reveal her true identity, and especially by Iro, some of whose actions resembled stand-up comedy, slapstick even. Iro evoked laughter in contrast to the high drama playing out between Ulisse  and Penelope.

The true star of the event was Pearlman’s performance edition. His four-page essay in the program book detailed its genesis in a painstaking note-by-note examination of the sole remaining manuscript score, found in Vienna in the 19th century. It was clearly a working copy designed for a specific production and not an autograph by the composer –  likely copied (incomplete) after his 1643 death. Like many scores of the time, it is extremely sketchy, with mere suggestions for harmonies and melodies – often just a single note on a line – that the musicians would have developed through improvisation during performance, and with some 90% of it consisting solely of continuo. Pearlman judiciously fleshed it out and created variety in the continuo instrumentation, which was unspecified in the manuscript, altering its color by switching among the harpsichord (one or two), organ, theorbo (one or two), guitar, and cello. This allowed the singers to execute the traditional ornamentation with customary period flexibility. Pearlman’s meticulous work was paired with a word-by-word examination of the separate period copies of the libretto, which do not match the score perfectly and contain some scenes for which no music exists, to establish a text that makes sense and flows logically.

Monterverdi, in a 19th-century etching by Barberis.
Claudio Monteverdi, in a 19th-century etching by Barberis.

This is opera stripped down to its most basic form, primarily declamatory recitative, with a few brief arias, slightly longer duets, trios, and quartets, and a concluding choral ensemble sung offstage. It can be extremely off-putting for an audience accustomed to full and lush 19th-century Romantic operas. It is a challenge to create an edition that will flow seamlessly and hold the riveted attention of such an audience. Pearlman has, in my opinion, succeeded in doing so. I eagerly await the release of the recording that was to be made in Worcester’s Mechanics Hall after the performances, so that I can relive the spellbinding experience.

Marvin J. Ward was a founder of Classical Voice of New England. Since April 2011, he is a Five Colleges Associate with Five Colleges, Inc., based at Smith College in Northampton, MA. His research and writing focus on music, currently French, and performances on historic pianos at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA.