Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria

Claudio Monteverdi

Synopsis

Prologue

Human Fragility, subject to Time, Fortune and Love, deplores her mortal condition.

Act I

At the royal palace of Ithaca, Penelope tells Ericlea, Ulysses’s old nurse, how sorrowful her husband’s long absence has made her (lament “Di misera regina”). The handmaiden Melantho and her lover Eurymachus sing of the love that unites them; they hope the queen may soon choose a new husband, so that they can abandon themselves to their passion. Neptune, who is angry with Ulysses for having blinded his son Polyphemus, intends to punish the Phaeacians for having helped the hero and has obtained permission from Zeus to wreak vengeance. The Phaeacians land on the beach at Ithaca. After depositing the sleeping Ulysses there, they go back to sea, singing a light song (“In questo basso mondo”). Neptune changes their ship into a cliff. Ulysses wakes up and finding himself alone on an unknown beach, reproaches the gods and the Phaeacians for having abandoned him.

Minerva appears before him, disguised as a shepherd. Revealing her true identity, the goddess tells him that he is in Ithaca and how he must now get his revenge. Dressed as an old beggar, he shall go to the royal palace, where he will quickly understand the designs of the Proci and Penelope’s faithfulness to him. Finally, the goddess urges Ulysses to go the Arethusa fountain to meet his old herdsman Eumete, and to wait there for the return of his son Telemachus. At the royal palace Melantho attempts in vain to convince Penelope to forget Ulysses and to accept a suitor. Eumetes, alone by the fountain, mourns the destiny of kings and praises the simple rustic life (“Colli, campagne e boschi!”). He is joined by Irus, the parasite at the court of Ithaca, who derides him. Eventually Ulysses himself appears, disguised as an old beggar. He asks Eumetes for hospitality and mysteriously announces the imminent return of his master.

Act II

Guided by Minerva, Telemachus reaches Ithaca, having returned from Sparta where he had gone to seek news of his father. He is welcomed by Eumetes, who emotionally informs him of the premonition received from his mysterious guest. When Telemachus and Ulysses are alone, the father resumes his real likeness and is recognised by his son.They rejoice (“O padre sospirato!”). At the royal palace, Melantho complains of Penelope’s inflexibility and decides to turn to the joys of love. Meanwhile the Proci make fresh offers of marriage to Penelope (“Ama dunque, sì, sì”) who disdainfully rejects them. Eumetes arrives at the palace and announces to Penelope the arrival of her son and the imminent return of Ulysses. The Proci are upset by this news and make plans to kill Telemachus, but are dissuaded by an eagle that flies over their heads, an omen of misfortune. Alone in a wood, Ulysses sees Minerva appear.

The goddess again assures him of her protection and informs him that she will inspire Penelope with the idea of an archery contest, thus enabling Ulysses to kill the Proci. When the goddess has vanished, Eumetes returns from the palace and tells Ulysses that the mere mention of his name inflicts terror upon his wife’s suitors. At the palace Telemachus recounts to his mother his voyage to Sparta and his meeting with Helen of Troy. Penelope is irritated by his description of Helen’s beauty, but Telemachus informsher of the Spartan’s queen’s happy premonition. Eumetes and the false beggar arrive at court. The beggar arouses resentment in Irus, who fears him as a rival; a scuffle between the two ends with Ulysses’s victory. The queen proposes an archery contest to her suitors, but none is capable of stringing the bow. Finally the false beggar succeeds, and with this weapon proceeds to slay the Proci.

Act III

The terrified Irus describes the massacre that has just ended and Melantho asks the queen, who complains of her fate, to avenge this disaster. Eumetes then reveals to Penelope the beggar’s true identity, but is met with scepticism from the queen. Not even Telemachus manages to convince her. Minerva persuades Juno to intercede with Zeus to placate the sea god’s rage and put an end to Ulysses’s wanderings.

Convinced by Zeus, Neptune grants his forgiveness. In the meantime at the palace of Ithaca, Eumetes and Telemachus try in vain to convince the incredulous queen, until at last Ulysses himself appears, in his true likeness. But still Penelope is reluctant. Only his description of their wedding cloth, known to them only, finally convinces her of her husband’s identity. Ulysses and Penelope rejoice at their reunion (“Illustratevi, o cieli”).

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