Opera underwent a sea change between 1607, when Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” debuted at the ducal palace in Mantua, and 1640, when his “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” was first presented at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. With a libretto drawing from Homer’s “Odyssey,” “Ulisse” is a riveting human drama. The prologue finds Human Frailty buffeted by Time, Fortune, and Love, and Penelope in turn is besieged by a trio of suitors as she endeavors to remain faithful to her wandering, god-afflicted husband. Monteverdi points the proceedings with a minimum of instruments, allowing the voices to take center stage.
Just how minimal the opera’s instrumentation was in 1640 is a matter of debate. For Boston Baroque’s “semi-staged” production Saturday at Jordan Hall, music director Martin Pearlman opted for a modest ensemble of 12 strings, two recorders, two cornetti, and a continuo group of harpsichord (from which Pearlman conducted), organ, theorbo, Baroque guitar, and cello. The semi-staging, by Mark Streshinsky, consisted of a ring of large slabs that, resembling a chunky turquoise bracelet, surrounded the orchestra, stepping stones on which the singers walked, their circling movements underlining the opera’s theme of return. At the back hung a tall curtain from behind which the performers would appear. Special effects included Ulysses’s vanishing in a flash of fire, the convincing projection of Jove’s eagle on the curtain, and a trio of cute stuffed lambs. Charles Schoonmaker’s Costuming was contemporary; one nice touch was Ulysses’s initial appearance in the same rags Human Frailty had worn.