Homecoming Queen: Jacobs with Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno di Ulisse” at Theater an der Wien


An ample decade ago, in its first season as Das Neue Opernhaus, I first traveled to Theater an der Wien to catch Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” conducted by René Jacobs, which indrectly inspired the creation of this blog. So it is – for a variety of reasons – always a special occasion to go back to TADW for more Jacobs.

This March, it was Monteverdi’s “Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria,” and the stage set-up already set this evening apart as the band was on the scene for this concert performance, as its central player.

A lute, and a theorbo: from the first appearance, the theme of coming home was readily apparent to my personal world views. The band – B’Rock Ghent – was cast small, and immediately carried the signature Jacobs sound of a clear and light sound (with a more matte edge of woodwind, with an accentuation of the dance rhythms, with the addition of bells) that prioritizes, perhaps thought from a singer’s perspective, a focused, unstrained tone over volume. It was a choice echoed by nearly the entire cast of singers. “Ulisse” counts with a large cast, even with some of its roles doubled and tripled, and I’d be hard-pressed to name a recent opera event with a similarly flawless Monteverdi cast.

First up in line was Marie-Claude Chappuis as L’umana fragilità, in a performance that turned out to be half-scenic, with costume changes somewhere between concert and stage robes, with entrances and exits through the band and around Jacobs, who was fascinating to observe. His style of conducting is, apart from the insame level of controlled precision he exerts, not quite anything I’ve seen on anyone else, with his elbows pulling far back into the room, making him not the wall of a space, but an axis in its middle.

Chappuis is one of these performers I have always been aware of, but have never heard live. I saw the telecasts of her Idamante under Harnoncourt, of her Ramiro under Haïm, and her light-colored mezzo had always struck me as perfectly balanced, if a little featherweight, with a stage presence that felt unsubstantial (you would not, say, compare her to a scene-chewing entity like Hallenberg). In this live performance, away from a fully staged show, I found her a lot more convincing in stage energy, exuding wit and charm especially in her take on Minerva, and also vocally richer (not as smooth, but undoubtedly richer!). Her voice placement is just as fabulous as it is in transmissions and I am pointing this out again because it was such a key feature of this evening at large, as if most singers involved were determined to put the vocal care business permamently out of a job because their singing was so amazingly focused and unstrained.

Next among the singers I was aware of, but had never heard live before (nor gone to special lengths to do so) was Mary-Ellen Nesi, who made her first appearance as Fortuna in a box across the hall (a part hat, with its higher tessitura, didn’t stage her capabilties to their best) and had me sit up straighter (or not exactly straighter) right from the start.
Nesi also sang Melanto and Ericlea (which required lots of outfit changes on her part), of which, if I had to choose, I liked her Ericlea best, perhaps because it is the part that most allowed for phrasing storytelling on her part. But I would prefer not to choose at all, though, because of details like her Melanto ornamentation that is jotted down with two exclamation marks in my notes. Of all the multiply cast singers, Nesi had the broadest range to cover, and did so impressively.

Third in the trio of low female voices on this night (also ‘have been aware, but never heard live’) was the Penelope of Katarina Bradic, who walked out onto the scene with a permanent scowl and an outfit that might best be described as “Glitter And Wear Lace”. Her presence stood out through sheer brooding intensity. The half-staging had her walk out, sit down at a quaint little table, and write notes.
Vocally, she is a lyric mezzo with an arrestingly dark color – something akin to 88% cocoa chocolate – which still does not make her a contralto: her lowest notes are drier here, losing not intensity, but smoothness. But regardless of range, Bradic is capable of maintaining vocal and scenic intensity like an open knife. Her presence was overall striking, as in “others dead”. She cut a figure that was a blend of appealing and imposing in a way that seemed to make the two older white men in my box uncomfortable, to the point where they felt compelled to label her. During the curtain calls, one of them leaned to the other to say, “Nice voice, and she also has the looks for the part!” and the other one grinned and nodded, as if to say, “You’re attractive enough for me to notice, well done.”
Bradic – a singer, I would assume, in her 30s? – wore a slim-cut dress, and was certainly very attractive in that, but what would “look the part” actually mean when it comes to Penelope? I don’t think the men I overheard meant to say, “yes, she has the body of an embittered widow of two decades who has given birth, raised her child on her own, and hasn’t had much reason to smile in past years as she is constantly harrassed by men who demand she be romantically available to them”. (What they meant was more likely, “I can frame your commanding presence through your attractiveness, so I can assert dominance through my gaze and not feel challenged in my hegemonic position.”)

The concert is already months in the past at this point, but the good thing about late reviews is that a) people will be less inclined to plagiarize them for their more immediate monetary uses, and b) at the distance, it is easier to tell what truly stood out about the performance. And it is, in this case, the technical excellence in singing, and the overall precision led by Jacobs himself that I remember most. Still, there was a feeling ease to the evening, despite its alertness, which might in part have been owed to the fact that the Vienna show was the final stop of a longer tour.

This “Ulisse” was a perfect dinner with a variety of exquisite tastes bound into an overall aesthetic, leaving you with a sensation of richness and no heaviness at all. In an opera where seemingly every other part is a tenor, there was space for not one, but three female lower voices, all of them in a variety of female parts (even if Minerva crossdresses for a bit), and I even loved every single tenor. As stated on Twitter during the show, I don’t think I have ever been as enthusiastic about as many tenors in a single night and every  last one of them was exellent, from the Telemaco of Anizio Zorzi Giustiniani to the Eurimaco of Pierre Dehet, from the Iro of Jörg Schneider to the Pisandro of Mark Milhofer, the Anfinomo of Johannes Chum and the stunning Eumete of Thomas Walker.

And even though my happy place in the soundspace was somewhere between Nesi and Bradic, there was so much excellent singing all around.

The evening started with the Amore of Mirella Hagen, the lone soprano in the cast (adding a layer by being visibly pregnant), blowing a kiss to the scowling Penelope of Bradic, who promptly sat down at her table to write up what we can only assume is Mt. Olympus fanfiction or a black list of her suitors or…?

What happened then was a quick row of “oh, so THIS is…?!”

First, Chappuis. The Umana fragilità is a lower-sitting part, and I had never really stopped to consider Chappuis’ lower range. She has to produce some of the lines, going for line over wording, but she does so very intelligently. Then the Tempo of Marcos Fink (at that point, I still assumed him to be Gagliardo) started to sing seemingly  in a box above my head – another well -empered Early Music voice.
Then there was Nesi’s Fortuna: sizable and with presence (why did I never stop to consider Nesi before? Why?), and that was still the prologue and I found myself thinking: how is this supposed to get any better?
And then Bradic started singing. Which, in sheer sound, was already appealingly dark-tinted, without it being a put-on veneer. The tessitura of Penelope’s opening monologue is such that Bradic has to put quite a bit of it into chest voice (like the very start, where she sounds like a tenor) and while it might have made the “she has the looks for it!” men nervous, it didn’t make me nervous. Or if it did, it was a different kind of nervous. I didn’t get the expression that she was phrase-acting that much, but she managed to make the opening number (which is a lenghty monodic piece) interesting with a good degree in moods and shifts.

Into that monologue, as Ericlea (again, with stunning presence and a very good command of now lower range), walked Nesi, whose portrayal here was the best of the night in the lower sections: supple, tinged with warmth, with an effortless and balanced command of chest range, and an immediate grasp of phrase weight (perhaps stemming from great familiarity with the score, too?). Three lines, and my mind repeated, this time in all caps, “WHY DID I NEVER STOP TO CONSIDER NESI BEFORE?”

Some people may have objected the audible register changes in Bradic’s performance, especially when she had to convey heftier affects, but I found that to be a very appealing quality. Bradic also easily held her weight against the band, even if they opened up on a more languid progression (as in the repeated “torna, torna Ulisse”). Her voice, together with Degout’s Ulisse, was the biggest of the evening, making the central couple an even match.

With Degout, it was at times apparent that he is a romantic-tradition trained singer with a repertory extending far beyond Early Music, perhaps best in contrast to Zorzi Giustiani, who sang both Telemaco and Giove: while his Telemaco had had a lighter tone quality and clarity in the diminuitions, his Giove showed more weight, but even then his projection was clearly front-oriented, with less physical pressure and a resonance focus that seemed to happen in front of him (around the ‘i’ sounds, there was a bit italiante sweetness, and we can talk about mannerist consonants, but it was, in all the heft, still very much Early Music heft). Degout, who appeared on scene as the one most involved in acting his part – taking off his shoes, then slipping into the bent beggar’s position – fits in well on the scale of rhetorics. And as long as he stays within mezza voce territory, his voice blends into the more specialized case with surprising ease. But at more dramatic moments, when he opens up – and Ulisse has some anger issues, and Degout is a good actor – the distinction in a more inwards head resonance, more pressure in tone production and a denser sound spectrum was apparent. His handling of word-oriented line still had him fit in well, though.

With Ulisse’s appearance, B’Rock Ghent also became more readily a part of the scenic action, as in the lute/theorbo plucks as Ulisse takes off his shoes to transform himself into the old beggar – an impulse given back and forth between instrumentalist and singer.

Jacobs, through all of this, maintains an uncanny precision. Not one accent seems to be off, not one detail slighted, and there were virtually no hiccups. Jacobs even conducted the accents of the wind machine, the decrescendo of the gong and, later, the thunder. With B’Rock Ghent, Jacobs achieved the typical slant of bands sounding always more rooted in the renaissance tradition than tied to later developments when he conducts them.

Degout gets another stage partner at this point in Chappuis’ playful Minerva in knickerbockers, scheming alongside him. The Minerva lines made Chappuis jump between registers, and she operated a lot more away from even, safe spaces here in her phrasing than I have ever head of her before. It was a fun, capricious, charismatic reading. Her voice, as a whole, remains on the small side, but it is obvious in her ornamentations that it is placed in a completely organic manner.

The second act begins, again, with a scowling Penelope, and then with Melanto trying to despina-ize her. To no avail, but to my personal delight, because the soundspace shared  between Bradic and Nesi here is one I would like to have as a permanent address, all fierce lower lament vs. the warmer, vibant glow of Melanto’s promises.

And it is a testament to the quality of this evening that I was just as happy with the following tenor duet – the Eumete of Thomas Walker, who may simply have the best instinctive handle on Monteverdi pastorale linework, the perfect balance between singing and speaking without ever appearing mannerist, getting into a fight with the less noble, more histrionic Iro of Jörg Schneider, which I honestly would have listened to all over again as soon as it was over.

All the male/male duetting was appealing, from Giove and Nettuno (Jérôme Varnier –  an Early Music bass to swoon over: firm, flowing tone, precise and agile, effortlessly present without moving the seat of the voice through pressure) having a household tiffle on revenge on mortals to Ulisse and Telemaco celebrating their father/son reunion. There is a bit of Chappuis’s Minerva, but otherwise this is a long stretch of tenors and baritone and I didn’t even notice, much less mind.

It is a mood that continues when we – for the third act opening – finally get to see Penelope and her suitors. She seethes bloody murder at them and their audicity, and she is right, yet they sound so good! In fact, among their little boy-band for grown-ups (Chum, Milhofer, Fink), they have such bromance energy that they could just move into a shared apartment together and forget about Penelope. They go through her correnspondence together and plot her seduction with the kind of companiable ease that would fit a decade or two of shared breakfast coffees. OT3!

Of course their innuendos launched at Penelope are smarmy and inappropriate. But again: their singing…! But before they launch their final appeal to Penelope, Penelope gets to have a word with Telemaco (beginning of Act IV), who is going on about the attractiveness of Helen of Troy. Bradic covers good acting range here, also in singing, from wistful maternal smile to mamma bear madness over her son having a crush on the worst kind of wrong person imaginable to her.

For their final bid to Penelope, the suitors then take off their jackets and – this may have been a dernière joke – suddenly sport t-shirts with the slogan ‘make Ithaca great again’ (baroque opera tours throwing shade at current political events may turn out to be my new favorite TADW thing). Instant laughs. As far as the romantic bids go, I’d have been hard-pressed to say no to any of them, since Monteverdi and B’rock Ghent und Jacobs  string up the sexiest tune of the evening (lute be like: lucky lute. Harp be like: harpy harp) as an intro first for Pisandro’s “Generosa regina”, then even more so for Anfinomo’s smitten “Se t’invoglia il desio”, to then go in for the kill with Antinoo’s effortlessly flowing “ll mio cor che t’adora”.

Then again, what I’d really take home would be Bradic’s 88%-cocoa-going-on-100% sound take on “Ecco l’arco d’Ulisse” (highly eloquent notes reading “Guuuuuh”).

Even though the production was not annouced as half-scenic, there is a bow at this point and the suitors make their fruitless and grandly theatrical attempts, having the orchestra cower in the middle of the stage and Jacobs himself first ducking behind his stand, then giggling at Pisandro’s faling in a high-pitched, very well focused head voice. #CTMoves
It was a scene where the shared joy and fun of the artists on the podium was palpable to the entire hall, which enriched the mood further – it was peak professionalism, but at flow point. The triple “Babe, listen…” of the  suitors with Jacobs’ “I am judging you!” Nutrice-style eyebrow raise was just the icing on this particular take.
The fact that Act IV ends in bloody murder with Degout’s Ulisse (presumably still the old beggar) managing to draw the bow and going after the stunned (great final line delivery!) suitors falls a bit to the wayside, also over the well-depicted tension between the disguised Ulisse and the hesitant, hardened and shaken Penelope Bradic paints.

The final Act V begins with an amazingly played intro number for Iro’s final solo scene (a scene capped with him running offstage, with sounds of killing himself side-scene, from whistling to a sudden timpani beat) – Jacobs and B’Rock Ghent sparkle and skine here with an unbelievable drive. The repeated “chi lo consola” line is surrounded by a sheer magical groove, and Schneider – using his large frame to anchor the number in motion between comic relief and tragic, weaving fludily and to great effect between both – makes the most of the range of this scene. The violin line for “Voglio uccider me stesso” really is not about laughter any longer and the moment profits immensely from the (voice-focused, Jacobs is still enough of a singer himself) rapport between singer and band.

The detached Mercurio scene that follows is cut here, as is the next Penelope/Melanto exchange. We cut straight to Eumete raving over “that was Ulisse” (smitten sighs at the orchestra suport for the “egli…”), but Penelope has seen too much to be easily swayed, not even by Telemaco (whose judgment is a little shifty either way, if we want to bring up Helen of Troy again).

Before the happy ending, mezzo Minerva is chewing out soprano Giunone for breakfast, which has a Jacobs intro with a flourish, in weaving string lines, and then an upbeat dance feel. Chappuis rocks it right from an richly ornamented “Fiamma è l’ira, o gran dea” – there are fireworks for sure. Special mention for “son figli i suoi dolori”!

And in further ‘rocks it!’: Bradic’s take on the final “Illustratevi, o cieli” is a sound to behold, but before we get to that, there is a final, introspective Ericlea scene, where she debates with herself whether to tell Penelope about Ulisse or not. It was perhaps my favorite Nesi moment of the evening. I was aware of her singing through endless Handel coloratura (hello, Tamerlano), but this is a less flashier scene, almost entirely declamatory, and she combined the song-like moments with the more spoken lines in a way that gave it weight. It could have been some staple nutrice scene, but it was a moment that stuck.

The entire final duet is then nicely balanced in weight between Degout and Bradic (there were unscowling smiles on stage and in the audience by the end) finished off an evening of outstanding singing.

(Final question regarding Ulisse and his inside knowledge of Penelope’s stitching designs on their bedroom throwcovers: Has he, in his twenty years abroad, ever stopped to wonder what it might say about his wife’s proclivities if she embroiders Diana and her virgin posse onto their bedspread?)

The show (not from Vienna, but the early Amsterdam stop of the tour) is still available here via the generous NPO.


[Lots of tenors, three mezzos, René Jacobs… two basses, one baritone, and a lone soprano: curtain call after “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”]

3 thoughts on “Homecoming Queen: Jacobs with Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno di Ulisse” at Theater an der Wien”

    1. Didn’t some patronizing jerk tell JDD yesterday on Twitter to keep away from politics?
      And I am so grateful that she and others take an ethical stand. These shirts were fun, but the stance was clearly taken. Elegant commentary 🙂


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