Left out on account of being too melancholy

Unlike most action narrative we are used to, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria isn’t much interested in what happened; the librettist’s interest lay mainly with the ethical implications of what happened.  Of course, Odysseus probably did not have much choice but to kill the suitors; and to do it by surprise attack:  it was very much the case of “better them than me”.  But this does not change the fact that the killing was treacherous; that it was — murder (since the suitors were unarmed); and that many bystanders were terribly affected by it.  Act Three of the opera deals with some of the consequences — yet, even Monteverdi himself found the impact of the librettist ruminations on the subject of victory contained within it much too dispiriting.  He intentionally left  out a scene (originally designated as Act V, scene II) in which the spirits of the suitors descend into hell:


[La si lascia fuori per essere malinconica.]

Deserto con Ombre de’ proci, Mercurio.


Dell’umana tragedia è questo il fine.
Regni, bellezza, amore
nel transito dissolve,
lo spirto vola e non riman che polve.
La morte è dèa possente,
abbatte ogni vivente
né ria speranza giova.
Chi non crede all’esempio
al fin non può negar fede alla prova.
Voi già proci superbi or placid’ombre,
prima principi illustri, or alme oscure
per man d’Ulisse il forte
gran ministro del ciel estinti foste,
ed or dopo goduta
la vagabonda libertà di morte
andrete profondati ove chi regna
a incrudelir insegna.
Chiaman le vostre colpe
precipizi d’averno,
voragini d’inferno,
ch’a’ perfidi e crudeli
quando l’eterno danno ha il ciel prefisso
s’apre così l’abisso.

Qui s’apre scena infernale e si profondano l’Ombre de’ proci.

Mercurio segue.

Imparate mortali,
sono di vostri brevissimi piaceri
i castighi immortali.
Stolti, sin che vivete,
vostri umani diletti
hanno la reggia in polve.
Mentre godono sol la carne, e i sensi,
e poi che morti siete
passa allo spirto un immortal
duro cambio infelice
gioir farfalla e tormentar fenice.
Vostra vita è un passaggio,
non ha stato e fermezza;
se mai giunge bellezza
tramonta allor, ch’appena mostra un saggio.
Vivi cauto, o mortale,
che cammina la vita e ‘l tempo ha l’ale,
e dove ingorda speme
vivendo non s’acquieta
dell’umana pazzia questa è la meta.


Opera as intellectual history

The Song of the Soul: Understanding Poppea is a delight.  Its topics are guaranteed to please — seventeenth century Venice, Monteverdi, opera; it’s writing is learned yet — breezy; though it be blessedly short (120 pages), yet it feels satisfyingly deep.

It is also the kind of history reading that seems best:  a kind of deep core-sampling.  Since no human mind can comprehend all of history, the best way to approach it may just be statistical: to take a series of random deep core-samplings. By the time you have sampled (in depth) Heian Era Japan, for instance, (The World of the Shining Prince) + Qing Dynasty China + Europe of the time of the bubonic plague (The Distant Mirror) + 17th century Italy, you begin to develop a sense of the overall shape of human affairs:  what is local and accidental and what is universal and lasting.

The book also happens to be good (i.e. non-fantastical) intellectual history. Its cogent argument is that the fall of the republics in Italy shifted classicists’ interest from Livy (Republican) to Tacitus (Imperial); and the corresponding rise of tyrants fueled an interest in Seneca’s stoicism – especially in something referred to as costanza – indifference, essentially – a precious mental skill at the time of rapidly declining individual liberties.

The book is also a delightful object:  small, light, well hand-fitting, it can be read comfortably in any position; it has a beautiful cover and meticulous print on quality paper. It reminds us that books are not merely words but can also be art objects. Pinguinification of the classics has had the converse effect. My newest Sei Shonagon is a Pinguin – unevenly pasted together with smelly glue, lousily small-printed on cheap, yellowing, brittle newsprint, it’s already beginning to fall apart. (One could say that I have read three Sei Shonagon’s to death). By now, at least two generations of scholars have been raised on such nothing-matters-but-the-text editions; is it any wonder they think that story telling and language games is all there is to literature?

Yes, we still have beautifully published art catalogs and coffee table books, but they are not read – they are too large and too heavy for reading. Poor classics, on the other hand, are invariably published in user unfriendly formats. Is it any wonder people aren’t reading them?


If I had an ounce of intellectual ambition, it may never be better deployed than to produce a similar book – a sequel, shall we say – on another Monteverdi opera – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.  I would want to include in it an essay on the 1977 Harnoncourt/Ponelle production of it. Ponelle’s famous statement about it – “Die schoenste zusammenarbeit meines lebens” – does mean “the finest collaboration of my entire life”, like the English liner notes say, but it also means – “the most beautiful”.

And it is beautiful.

And historically convincing – it certainly looks very baroque.

And comprehensible – most productions of the opera since have not been.

And – not least – a great lot of fun.  (There is a lot of humor in the opera and the H/P team have successfully carried it off).


Of course, one reason why it is comprehensible is that it is also — complete.  Most modern productions heavily abridge Act Three – in which three parties have to be reconciled to Odysseus’ “victory” — or, should we say, his murder of the suitors: Ireus, the glutton (now deprived of free fare), gods (who have been tricked), and Penelope (who refuses to fall into Odysseus’ arms, perhaps precisely because she has no real choice about it).

In part, moderns abridge the opera because it is long – today we are all working class people, by and large, and suffer chronic shortage of time; as well as — possibly — a virus-induced ADD.  (A brain-shorting virus is spread by domesticated cats).

But mostly directors abridge it because, habituated to the currently popular way of thinking about success, failure and virtue; and expectations of what constitutes a good plot; they either do not get the point of Act Three, or, perhaps more likely, think their audience will not. Who cares about the loser Ireus?  Why must gods be propitiated?  Why does not Poppea fall instantly into the arms of Odysseus?  And why are these points allowed to interfere with the happy end?

The reason why is that Ulisse was intended to be as much philosophical as Poppea was.  The hero winning the battle and getting the girl was not all there was to it.  Abridging Act Three ignores this fact and dumbs the opera down.  Evidence suggests that it probably cannot be done.  (Certainly not seemlessly).

The fairly common perception that Ulisse needs to be dumbed down — and the audience’s frequent incomprehension where it wasn’t, implies a kind of transformation in the common way of thinking — a weighty intellectual history in itself.  Discovering it might tell us more about ourselves than Ian Fenelon’s book does.