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Opera review

BEMF crowns Monteverdi trilogy with elegant new ‘Ulisse’

Patrick Kilbride as Iro and Colin Balzer as Ulisse in the Boston Early Music Festival’s “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.”Kathy Wittman

Not the artificial heat of a stage illusion, but the warming power of “the real sun.” This , as the poet Giacomo Badoaro wrote, was what Monteverdi could provide in his music, if only he could be persuaded to return to the genre of opera. The aging composer, who had years earlier given opera its first taste of greatness in “Orfeo,” of course did ultimately return in his seventh decade, writing a pair of vertiginous masterworks for the Venetian public in his final years: “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” and “L’incoronazione di Poppea.”

Taken on their own terms, “Ulisse” and “Poppea” bring no small share of rewards, and, as a pair of towering late works imbued with very different tints, they have often been compared with Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff.” But this week local audiences have a very rare chance to take in both works in close proximity, together with “Orfeo,” as the so-called Monteverdi trilogy headlines this year’s edition of the Boston Early Music Festival. If a single artistic team has ever staged all three works over the course of one week, no one seems to know about it.

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“Ulisse,” as the festival’s new production this year, was first out of the gate, opening on Sunday afternoon at Boston University Theatre. Based on the final dozen books of the “Odyssey,” the libretto tells of the journey home of Ulisse (Ulysses) after years of absence following the end of the Trojan War. At the opera’s heart is a productive tension between epic sweep and personalized drama. On its face, the libretto has a formal bearing, dozens of characters pass over the stage, and as Ellen Ro-sand observes in a program essay, its preponderance of speech-like music and its emphasis on moral propriety place it far from the more sensual and libertine world of “Poppea.”

And yet despite these qualities, Monteverdi’s gift here for conjuring authentic emotion — the real sun, as it were — from the interactions of his characters is little short of astonishing. One commentator has credibly wondered, for instance, whether in the nearly four centuries since this opera’s premiere any composer has written a gentle scene for father and son as naturally moving as the Act 2 reunion — after a separation of 20 years — of Ulisse and his son, Telemaco.

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Among the most striking qualities of BEMF’s superb new production, with stage direction and elegant sets by Gilbert Blin, are its intimacy and immediacy, the way it brings out the deep veins of emotion that run through Monteverdi’s stately score. A gasp could be heard from somewhere in Sunday’s audience at the close of the father-son reunion scene. Modern viewers, it seems, might expect Monteverdi’s opera to impress from a distance. Fewer encountering this music for the first time may anticipate its ability to speak with such directness across the centuries.

Sunday’s outing was lifted, too, by particularly strong and fluid performances in the principal roles. With a controlled intensity and dusky vocal colorings, Mary-Ellen Nesi conveyed the essence of the long-suffering queen Penelope, Ulisse’s wife, whose heart, as the libretto puts it, has been hardened like a diamond by her chaste loyalty to her husband’s memory, and to the hope of his eventual return. The sweet-toned tenor Zachary Wilder sang a moving Telemaco, so palpably stunned by his father’s reappearance. And as Ulisse, Colin Balzer handsomely conveyed the full range of emotion, from the weariness and humility imposed on him by fate to the unalloyed joy experienced on his return.

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As one of the virtues evidently offered by this Monteverdi week, singers entrusted with lead roles in other operas could be heard on Sunday in smaller assignments, with for instance Amanda Forsythe as the goddess Giunone (Juno) and Aaron Sheehan as Eurimaco. Elsewhere in the cast, Jason McStoots was excellent as the loyal shepherd Eumete, and Mireille Asselin handled the florid vocal writing of the goddess Minerva with style and flair. The scheming suitors, who seek to soften Penelope’s resolve, were deftly sung (and nicely individuated) by José Lemos, Charles Blandy, and Christian Immler. Penelope’s follower Melanto was charmingly portrayed by Danielle Reutter-Harrah, and both Laura Pudwell and Patrick Kilbride did well in the smaller roles of Ericlea and Iro, respectively.

The themes in “Ulisse” have sweep, but the musical forces used to convey them here were anything but grand, with just a handful of strings complementing a wonderfully protean continuo group (including music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs). As a first-time venue for BEMF, the modest-sized Boston University Theatre was a good choice, one that allowed this intimate staging to resonate without forcing its own voice. On Sunday, a grateful ovation came swiftly, capping an auspicious start to a week of Monteverdi — and a lot more.

MONTEVERDI’S ‘IL RITORNO D’ULISSE IN PATRIA’

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Boston Early Music Festival

At: Boston University Theatre, Sunday (repeats Wednesday

and Friday)


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.