With Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, the Vienna State Opera completes its Monteverdi cycle opened in the past two seasons with L'incoronazione di Poppea and La favola di Orfeo. The relationship of the Ritorno to Vienna is a particularly close one, since the only surviving handwritten score by a copyist's hand was only identified in the 2nd half of the 19th century in the holdings of Leopold I's former bedchamber library; since the 2nd half of the 20th century, Monteverdi's authorship has been recognised beyond doubt. It could not be ascertained whether the copy of the score was expressly commissioned by the Habsburgs or acquired in Italy. Nor is there any indication that this score was used in connection with a performance.
The Return of Ulysses, first performed in 1640, comes - like The Coronation of Poppea - from Monteverdi's last, Venetian creative period, when he worked as Kapellmeister at St Mark's Cathedral. The opening of the first public opera house in 1637 also inspired the former pioneer of the genre, now at an advanced age, to new musical-theatrical designs. The challenge lay in the maximum focus on solo singing accompanied by the basso continuo, with a radical reduction of the external apparatus, i.e. the concentration of the instrumental parts on a richly scored continuo group of keyboard, plucked and string instruments, with the occasional participation of a small string formation in the instrumental ritornellos, and with a large renunciation of the participation of ballet and chorus. From these prerequisites, Monteverdi unfolded a rhythmically pulsating and interwoven wealth of intonations: The spectrum encompasses equally the poignant lament and the exuberant dance song, the haunting monody and the polyphonic ensemble, the chromatically charged love duet and the virtuoso rhetorical confrontation, parodic intensification and dramatic compression.
The underlying concept of »recitar cantando«, i.e. »sung recitation«, implied the high literary demands placed on the libretto poems. The libretto of the Ritorno was written by Giacomo Badoaro, a noble Venetian dilettante who - like Monteverdi's Poppea librettist Busenello, with whom he was friends - was a member of the circle of intellectual free thinkers of the Accademia degli Incogniti. His libretto theatricalises Cantos 13 to 23 of the Odyssey, the epic poem about the return of King Odysseus of Ithaca from the Trojan War, written at the turn of the 8th to the 7th century BC and traditionally attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Badoaro's scenario focuses on the events on and around Ithaca, from the moment when the sleeping Ulisse is deposited on his home island by the friendly Phaeacians. The action oscillates back and forth between Ulisse, who is taken in unrecognised and in the guise of a beggar by the swineherd Eumete and at first only reveals himself to his son Telemaco, and the events in the residence where Penelope, who has been missing her husband for 20 years, is courted by three suitors. In another narrative strand, so far underexposed in reception and scenically largely reduced to »baroque fairground magic«, the god figures of the ancient pantheon Giove (Jupiter), Nettuno (Poseidon), Minerva (Athena) and Giunone (Juno) act. Their rivalries and assertion strategies play a decisive role in the course of events and make it clear that it is above all also their war that they have fought out through human representatives. Unlike the classicist opera seria of the late Baroque, Venetian opera does not yet have a status clause: lords and servants, courtiers and peasants, gods and tramps act side by side.
Despite all the orientation towards the figures, events and contexts of the epic, the authors of the opera bring about an enormous transformation of their famous model. Thus, it is not the marriage bed built by Odysseus that leads to the final authentication of the identity of the missing man, but an artefact created by Penelope, namely a bedspread woven by her. But even where the libretto follows the content of the Homeric account, the epic content is comprehensively transformed and reshaped through its theatricalisation, which also takes into account the propaganda of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The vanitas motif is also profoundly Baroque, introduced by a prefatory prologue in which the allegories of time, chance and love sing of the deathly decay of »human frailty« at the mercy of its powers.
Music and theatre research and the enthusiastic reactions of today's opera-goers point in the same direction: in their late work, Monteverdi and Badoaro created a scenic-musical cosmos whose sensual and intellectual diversity and complexity can be measured against Shakespeare's dramas.