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Ancient Inspiration:  Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses'

Could there really be a single story that's at the root of everything from a popular 21st-century film and a famously challenging modernist novel, to a 1970's rock hit and an early Baroque opera?

The answer is "yes," and it’s a story so old that no one can say when it was actually written.

The film it inspired is the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou, while the rock tune is Steely Dan's "Home at Last." As for the novel and the opera, their titles both give the story's identity away: They're Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland).

The tortuous story of the hero Ulysses comes to us from Homer's The Odyssey, an epic that's been dated as far back as 850 century BC, or perhaps even earlier. Monteverdi's opera is easier to pin down. He completed it in 1640, at a time when opera, as a genre, was so new that it barely had a name.

The birth of opera, in the early 1600s, wasn't an overnight event. It was an evolutionary process, involving many different styles and composers. But when it comes to opera's founding fathers, Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above all the others. His 1607 opera Orfeo is widely regarded as the first truly great opera ever composed, and it's still popular today. His last opera, The Coronation of Poppea, was composed in 1643, the same year he died, and it also makes frequent appearances on modern stages.

The Return of Ulysses is the only other full-scale opera by Monteverdi that survives today, and while it may be less familiar than the other two, it's surely no less beautiful. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance by one of the world's foremost early music ensembles, the Concerto Italiano, with conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini. The vocal stars are baritone Furio Zanasi in the title role and contralto Sara Mingardo as Ulysses' patient wife Penelope, in a production from the International Baroque Opera Festival in Beaune, France.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.