Having already bought and reviewed the two other ground-breaking recordings of Monteverdi operas by Harnoncourt with the same forces, I felt that this was an essential purchase to complete the trio - especially as they are the only operas by him to come down complete to us.
The same array of first-rate singers is in the cast and I am once again delighted by Rotraud Hansmann's pretty, vibrant soprano. Norma Lerer brings a warm, expressive contralto to the role of Penelope but I wish that Ulysses were sung by a more impressive and characterful voice than the serviceable but rather dull and plaintive baritone of Sven Olof Eliasson. Nor do I think that Monteverdi's music is quite as consistently inspired here as it is in his other two stage works for all that it has numbers of great beauty, but that is largely the result of its being a verse drama rather than a "Favola in musica".
Harnoncourt's choices regarding instrumentation and when to revert to pure continuo seem to me to be very successful and sensitive. In addition to the main band of contemporary string instruments, recorders, piffari and a dulcian lend lightness to the pastoral and comic scenes, trombones, trumpets and the organ confer grandeur and gravity on the appearances of the gods and different combinations of harpsichord, virginal, lutes, chitarrone and harp are used in a rational manner to colour and lend atmosphere to the affairs of the mortals.
These new issues under the "Das Alte Werk" label are handsomely packaged but unfortunately lack libretti. This is especially galling as "Il ritorno" is essentially a dramatisation of a portion of the "Odyssey" in which the libretto is closely modelled on the original text and as such is less of an opera in the baroque sense, having no arias, but rather gives priority to the words whose impact is intensified by the music as "recitativo accompagnato". "Orfeo", written some thirty-three years earlier is in one sense much more of an opera as we would recognise it given its preponderance of arias. However, moments such as the final recognition and reconciliation scene here are still melodically rich. No-one would guess that this was recorded over forty years ago when the rehabilitiation of Baroque and Renaissance music was still a novelty.