The Story of 'The Return of Ulysses'
Monteverdi's opera begins with a Prologue, featuring a lively discussion between Human Frailty, and the powers of Time, Fortune and Love.
ACT ONE opens in the rooms of Penelope, whose husband Ulysses has gone off to fight the Trojan War. But Troy fell more than ten years ago, and Ulysses still isn't home. Penelope has three suitors vying for her attentions, but she can think only of Ulysses. Her nurse Ericlea tries to console her, but fails.
We then meet Ulysses, lying asleep on a beach at Ithaca, where the gods Neptune and Jupiter have left him. As he wakes, the goddess Minerva appears and tells him he is free to return to his wife. But first, Minerva disguises Ulysses as an old beggar. That way, he can confront Penelope's three suitors anonymously. Back at the palace, Melanto tells Penelope to forget Ulysses and take up with one of the suitors, but Penelope refuses.
The scene changes and we see Eumete, a swineherd, arguing with the drunken outcast Iro. Ulysses arrives, in his disguise as a beggar. Eumete used to work for Ulysses and has remained loyal to him. But now he doesn't recognize his old boss, and he's concerned about Ulysses' fate. Ulysses tells him not to worry -- his master will soon be back.
As ACT TWO begins, we meet Telemaco, Ulysses' son. Eumete tells Telemaco that he's met a beggar who claims to have news about Ulysses. Eumete introduces the two men, but Telemaco doesn't recognize his father. Then, in a ray of light from heaven, Ulysses is revealed, and the two are reunited. Ulysses sends Telemaco off to join Penelope, saying he'll be home soon, though still in disguise.
Back at the Palace, the maid Melanto and the shepherd Eurimaco are both amazed at Penelope's continued loyalty to Ulysses, and it's no wonder. Penelope's three, persistent suitors -- Antinoo, Pisandro, and Anfinomo -- have all shown up on her doorstep at the same time. Once more, each one tries to win Penelope over. They all fail. Eumete then arrives with the news that Telemaco is on his way, and may be bringing Ulysses with him. The suitors plot to kill Telemaco, but an omen warns them against it. Still, they vow to win Penelope no matter what the cost.
Ulysses is in a wooded grove, with the goddess Minerva. She tells him not to worry about the suitors. Minerva says that Penelope herself will come up with the idea that gets them out of the way once and for all.
At the palace, Telemaco assures Penelope that Ulysses will arrive shortly. He does, still in disguise, and with Eumete at his side. They're greeted roughly by the three suitors and their gluttonous sidekick, Iro, who challenges Ulysses to a fight. To everyone's surprise, the old beggar beats Iro easily. Intrigued, Penelope invites this beggar to stick around.
The suitors are still determined that one of them will have Penelope. So she suggests a contest. This idea is actually Minerva's -- in true goddess-like fashion, she has planted the notion in Penelope's mind. Penelope has a servant bring in a bow that once belonged to her husband, Ulysses. She says that if one of the suitors can string the bow, she will be his. One by one, the suitors attempt it, but none of them has the strength to string the bow. Ulysses, still in disguise, then suggests that he might give it a try. To everyone's amazement, the old beggar strings the bow easily. He also uses it immediately -- killing all three suitors as the act ends.
The suitors' bloody fate sets up the opening of ACT THREE. It's a bravura number for Iro. Though shunned by everyone else, the suitors kept Iro around for his entertainment value, and they were his only means of support. Now he mourns their passing in a raucous take-off on the typical, Baroque lament.
With the suitors dead, and Penelope still waiting faithfully for Ulysses, everything seems right for a joyful reunion -- but Penelope is grieving. She's promised herself to whomever could string the bow, and she still thinks Ulysses is an unsightly old beggar. Eumete tries to persuade Penelope that this beggar is actually her own husband. She thinks he's lying, and tells him so. Her son Telemaco also tries to convince her, but she won't listen to him, either.
Then, the gods finally decide Ulysses' fate. They conclude that he has suffered enough and allow him to visit Penelope without his disguise. At first, she still refuses to believe that it's actually him. Even when the nurse Ericlea says that she's seen this man in the bath, and recognized a distinctive scar, Penelope is unsure. But when Ulysses accurately describes the embroidered cover that was on their wedding bed, Penelope is convinced. Husband and wife are reunited, and the opera ends with their sensuous duet.
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