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.
Pearlman cut the scene between Penelope and her son Telemachus; even so, the evening ran three hours and 15 minutes (with a 20-minute intermission). The singing throughout was excellent, and the orchestra impinged on it only rarely, but at times, particularly in the first half, the drama dragged. Jennifer Rivera was a shade withered and withering as Penelope, blooming only when she recognized her husband; Fernando Guimarães created a more animated and differentiated Ulysses. Also outstanding were Abigail Nims’s flirtatious maid Melanto, Daniel Auchincloss’s courtly shepherd Eumaeus, Sonja DuToit Tengblad’s slinky Fortune and searing Juno, Ulysses Thomas’s importunate suitor Antinous, and Marc Molomot’s stuttering sponger Irus (who after his suitor sponsors were dispatched told us he was committing suicide but instead, in a sly twist, made off with Antinous’s gold).
Kudos to Boston Baroque for attempting this and largely bringing it off. Few moments in opera are as moving as Ulysses’s words to Penelope, “In honor of your eyes, I scorned eternity.” Or as their final duet, where their “Sí, sí, sí” (“Yes, yes, yes”) anticipates Molly Bloom at the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”