The story is as old as matrimony itself: a husband comes home unexpectedly, finds that his wife is not alone and engages in some justifiable homicide. But there are a few variations in the final episode of Monteverdi's opera, "The Return of Ulysses," which is based on Homer's "Odyssey." Ulysses has been away for 10 years, winning the Trojan War and getting involved in various adventures on his homeward journey; he is presumed dead and his wife, Penelope, is besieged with suitors eager for her hand and his kingdom--ready to kill him if he does return.
In the original, there were 50 suitors and Ulysses slaughtered them all in a climactic scene, after sneaking back into his own palace in disguise. Monteverdi, either hampered by production costs or inspired by the possibilities of three-part harmony, reduced their number to a more realistic three, but there is still a Wagnerian splendor in the scene where Ulysses finally gets his hands on his trusty bow, throws off his disguise and sends three arrows speeding to their marks. It is one of the highlights in a production, scheduled for its national television premiere tonight (Channel 26 at 8; stereo simulcast on WETA-FM), that also features a storm at sea and shipwreck; a brief, colorful episode of hand-to-hand combat; conflict among the Greek gods who insist on meddling in human affairs; scenes of high and low comedy, and some highly erotic love music with visuals to match.
The stage direction is by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose interpretation of Monteverdi's final opera, "The Coronation of Poppea," had its premiere last year and will be repeated next Monday night. Like "Poppea," this production of "Ulysses" is controversial but fascinating. It is acted as well as it is sung, which is very well indeed. Ponnelle's interpretation puts both stories in the context of the Renaissance, when the operas were composed, rather than the ancient times in which the action takes place. The staging is that of a performance in a Renaissance court, most of the characters wear Renaissance costumes, and the orchestra (which was seen occasionally in "Poppea") becomes a very active participant. At one climactic point, a character sings, "I want to kill myself" and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt calmly hands him a knife while continuing to conduct with his other hand.
In this case, the cutesy touch comes during an aria that is essentially comic despite its bloody conclusion, and it helps to sustain the balance between comedy and horror. The aria itself, sung by tenor Arley Reece, is the first really spectacular tenor showpiece in the history of opera and it gets the performance of a lifetime in this production. Other roles are equally well filled, notably those of Ulysses (Werner Hollweg), Penelope (Trudeliese Schmidt), the voluptuous maid Melanto (Janet Perry) and the three suitors (Simon Estes, Peter Straka and Paul Esswood). Even with its occasional eccentricities, and often because of them, tonight's telecast of "The Return of Ulysses" is a fascinating and beautiful experience.