VIENNA — The Vienna State Opera has ostensibly charted new territory with a Monteverdi trilogy that is now coming to a close with Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. In May 2021, the ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien made its house debut with L’incoronazione di Poppea in a wild staging imported from the Salzburg Festival. The new production of Ulisse by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, seen at the second performance on April 4, marks the first presentation of Monteverdi’s Venice-period opera at the theater.
The historic backdrop is worth noting. A 1971 performance of Ulisse with Concentus Musicus under its late founder Nikolaus Harnoncourt helped this work hit the operatic mainstream, and its manuscripts had resurfaced here in the Austrian capital a century before. But it was not at the State Opera that the ensemble appeared but rather the Theater an der Wien, which has continued to cultivate a tradition of early-period opera, often in daring productions that meet with international acclaim.
Concentus Musicus, under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, this month fills the pit of the State Opera with a continuo section including two double-basses, two harpsichords, two chitarrones, two psalteries, and more. The cast features international star Kate Lindsey as Penelope, the ever-versatile Georg Nigl as Ulisse, and a host of talented young singers. But the State Opera ultimately does not offer an ideal acoustic environment for Monteverdi, nor does the Wieler-Morabito production make a compelling case for mounting the work.
The gods (Neptune, Jupiter, Minerva, et al.) are depicted as jet-setters who are accustomed to getting their way, while mortals roam the earth below — an allegory that ties into the language of the libretto but ultimately proves neither amusing nor profound. A revolving circular platform includes first-class airplane seats for the deities, a lifeguard chair, and a giant wooden loom representing the handiwork of Penelope as she waits for the return of her husband Ulisse (sets and costumes by Anna Viebrock). The rest of the stage resembles a scrappy cross between a café and a factory.
The allegorical figures of Time, Fortune, and Cupid mysteriously appear in ponchos, while Penelope mourns behind her sunglasses. The lights come up suddenly for the appearance of the Phaeacians, who parade through the aisles holding up ear-marked books, while the nymphs who hide Ulisse’s luggage are cast as scientists. The shadow of an airplane occasionally sails above the characters’ heads, ultimately ceding to a blue sky representing the realm of the victorious gods.
The attempt to invest Ulisse with contemporary relevance also manifests itself in the singers’ performances: Lindsey’s opening monologue (“Di misera regina”) bordered on the histrionic as she lamented being left alone, and yet she was too far downstage for certain subtle shadings to be audible. Her voice carried better when she confronted Penelope’s aggressive suitors, and of course when she was atop the life chair in the final scene upon being reunited with her husband. Nigl, perhaps best known as Wozzeck, was meanwhile in full voice, mining the expressive possibilities of Monteverdi’s writing but not always staying within its stylistic boundaries.
Ensemble member Josh Lovell gave a stand-out performance as Ulisse’s son, Telemaco, as did Isabel Signoret as the teasing Minerva. Andrea Mastroni brought an authoritative bass to the role of Neptune (he also appears as Penelope’s suitor, Antinoo, and the personification of Time). Helene Schneiderman cut above the orchestra as Penelope’s old nurse Eurycleaia and the first incarnation of Human Frailty. Hiroshi Amako and Daria Sushkova were a playful enough pair as the lovers Eurymachus and Melanto.
Opera studio member Katleho Mokhoabane gave a moving performance as Pisandro and the fourth apparition of Human Frailty (why the role was allotted to four different singers remains a mystery). I am excited to hear more from this tenor. Daniel Jenz was a seductive Jupiter, while Anna Bondarenko brought a plush tone but opaque ornaments to the role of Juno.
In general, the production seemed keener on lending Monteverdi contemporary flair than mining the depth of the musical and dramatic substance. Concentus Musicus played with verve and elan, but the score’s dance rhythms were often not crisp enough. In addition, the instruments’ sound tended to swim in the cavernous space of the State Opera. Heras-Casado should be praised for the lush lyricism in the pit and onstage, but he also pushed the music toward the Romantic.
The big question looming over the performance was the need to stage Monteverdi when the Theater an der Wien has such an excellent track record of hosting period ensembles and, in its historic headquarters, more suitable acoustics. Vienna has the luxury of running three opera houses, and there is enough late 19th- and 20th-century repertoire that could flourish at State Opera: Why not some Meyerbeer, which could exploit the ballet corps, or neglected works by Korngold? That would be a breakthrough in this city’s dense classical-music landscape.