Sir John Eliot Gardiner knows a thing or two about Monteverdi. An undergraduate performance of the Vespers in 1964 launched his Monteverdi Choir and for DG he recorded a fine Orfeo in 1987 and Poppea in 1996. It’s perhaps surprising that it has taken him until now to complete the Venetian master’s operatic trilogy with this recording of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (Ulysses’ return to his Homeland) taken from live performances in 2017, the culmination of the composer’s 450th anniversary celebrations.

Monteverdi’s second opera (not counting L’Arianna, which is lost bar the famous lament), was premiered in Venice at the 1640 Carnival and is therefore a late work – the composer was 74. Never as ‘popular’ as his two other surviving operas, it tends to focus on ethical and philosophical issues like fidelity, honour, faith and stoicism rather than on sex, blood and guts (Poppea) or love, death and magical happenings (Orfeo).

That said, it has plenty of levity surrounding the foolish and gluttonous suitors who have infested Ulisse’s house and culminates in a full-on massacre of the whole spineless pack of them in the penultimate act. The final scene, where Ulisse convinces the doubting Penelope that he is who he says he is contains some of Monteverdi’s most profound music. Where gaps in the original exist, they have been plugged here with judicious interpolations from the books of madrigals or the Scherzi Musicali.

In his eloquent sleeve notes, Gardiner argues that if you get it right, Ulisse is the most moving of the trilogy, and here he certainly gets it right. Swift-moving, but only when it needs to be, his expansive reading moves effortlessly from declaimed recitative to arioso to aria and back again, always taking its cue from speech rhythms (the essay on this is worth the cost of the disc alone). His English Baroque soloists – 33 in number – eschew cheap effect for a deep exoticism rooted in Monteverdi’s embrace of modernist dissonance and pungent orchestral effects. Both players and singers live on the edge, convincingly embracing improvisation to pepper the dramatic stew.

Furio Zanasi makes a most convincing Ulisse – not an easy sing as it ranges widely. His Penelope is Lucile Richardot, an intense singing actor if not always the sweetest toned. Appealing contributions come from Hana Blažíková as a perky Minerva, a sonorous Gianluca Buratto as Time, Neptune and the duplicitous suitor Antinoo, Robert Burt as the slimy Iro and a sweet-toned Anna Dennis as the flighty maid Melanto. First class recorded sound offers the frisson of live performance without any clumping about. Recommended.

Composer: Monteverdi
Composition: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria
Performer: English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Catalogue Number: Soli Deo Gloria SDG730 (3CD)

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