Introducing: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – Monteverdi 450

Tomorrow night we host the UK premiere of the Monteverdi 450 series, and one of the most exciting moments in this year’s classical music calendar, as Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in a landmark semi-staged presentation of this groundbreaking composer’s three surviving operas.

As the sound of the orchestra rehearsing drifts through our building, we thought we would take a moment to let you get better acquainted with this celebrated Baroque composer before the concert tomorrow night.

Introduction to Monteverdi from Oliver Condy, Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Polyphonic choral music, as perfected by Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina, had reached its peak in early 17th-century Italy. But for many, this admittedly beautifully crafted music seemed to have very little connection to its text. Claudio Monteverdi, while a fan of Palestrina, was determined to realise music’s full dramatic potential.

With angular melodies and spicy harmonies, Monteverdi brought poetry to life, individual words and phrases illuminated with eye-popping musical ingenuity. Musical rules were there to be broken, if the end result meant that a poem’s meaning became crystal clear. Monteverdi’s series of madrigals, in which he developed music’s new role as story teller, led to his greatest achievements: at least 18 operas – of which just three survive in their breathtaking entirety. All of them drive the action forward through a stunning balance of recitative, song and dance, and they confirm Monteverdi’s status as one of music’s truly great dramatists – and as the father of modern opera.

Opera Synopsis: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
On the Island of Ithaca after the Trojan War, an inconsolable Penelope waits for her husband, Ulysses, to return. Eventually he turns up disguised as an old man in order to outwit three suitors that are after Penelope’s hand. Meanwhile, in Act II, Minerva unites Ulysses with his son, Telemachus, while Penelope sets a test for each of her suitors. She will only marry the one who is able to string Ulysses’s great bow. All of them fail, but Ulysses, still disguised as an old man, succeeds and kills all three of them. Penelope won’t believe that the man who strung the bow is, in fact, her husband – not even Telemachus or her maid can convince her. But eventually, after Ulysses describes the embroidered quilt on their nuptial bed, she is persuaded, and husband and wife are blissfully reunited.

VIDEO: Sir John Eliot Gardiner introduces this great composer

Discover Monteverdi’s colourfully emotional music with our playlist

We’ve made a short playlist to highlight some our favourite moments from the three Monteverdi operas that are coming to Colston Hall during April and May 2017. Monteverdi’s music is all about bringing the high emotion of text to their full effect, and we can’t wait to see it realised by the world’s finest experts: English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

The Operas


Sun 28 May 2017
Starting in the realm of the demigods, charismatic musician Orpheus descends to the underworld in an attempt to bring his beloved Eurydice back to life. His journey proves fruitless, as he cannot prevent himself from looking back at Eurydice as she follows him back to the living world and he loses her forever to the world of the dead.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

Wed 12 Apr 2017
From the pastoral world of Orpheus, Monteverdi moves to the Homeric world of Odysseus in the aftermath of the Trojan War. When Ulysses, King of Ithaca, returns home at the end of a ten-year journey he finds his faithful queen, Penelope, besieged by a trio of unctuous suitors and urged by her advisors to accept a new husband. Ulysses (with both the help and hindrance of the quarrelling gods) eventually convinces her of his true identity, routs the three suitors and regains his kingdom.

L’incoronazione di Poppea

Mon 8 May 2017
Monteverdi’s final opera is a celebration of carnal love and ambition triumphing at the expense of reason and morality. Set in a world of shifting alliances, formed and dissolved in the attempt to achieve amorous goals and social ambitions, the opera focuses on anti-heroine Poppea’s ruthless rise from Nero’s mistress to his acknowledged queen. In an opera of stark contrasts, Monteverdi prepares us to despise Nero and Poppea as they are satirised by two disgruntled sentry guards, and yet the ensuing portrayal of the two lovers as they exchange and entwine musical lines leaves us under their irresistible spell.