DALLAPICCOLA: Ulisse (Opera with a Prologue and Two Acts)
Claudio Desderi (Ulisse); Gwynn Cornell (Circe, Melanto); William Workman (Antinoo); Denise Boitard (Nausicaa); Stan Unruh (Demodoco, Tiresia); Schuyler amilton (Eumeo); Colette Herzog (Calypso, Penelope); Radio France Chorus and Philharmonic Orch/Ernest Bour, cond.
NAIVE V4960 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 75:24 & 46:49

No tunes. Dallapiccola finished his opera Ulisse (Ulysses) in 1968. It had taken him eight years. The libretto, by the composer himself, is an amazing piece of work, incorporating not only Homer, but Machado, Thomas Mann, Cavafy, Shakespeare, and Dante - all the references I've identified so far. Consider what thought it must have taken to reduce all the books of the Odyssey to two hours, or an evening in the theater, and then to draw on an amazing reading list besides. Dallapiccola's solution is brilliantly poetic.

Among other things, Dallapiccola shows his connection to the Italian operatic tradition, harkening all the way back to Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. But he also represents a break with the Romantic, bel canto tradition of Italian opera. The emotions are less fundamental, less raw, less immediate. For those who need opera as pretty tunes, scenery, costumes, and singers who can't act, Ulisse will never become a favorite. It's also not particularly theatrical - that is, certain elements of it pose staging problems (the death of the suitors, as Ulysses shoots his arrows into them, for example). Unlike most opera, it doesn't portray a conflict between characters, but a conflict within a character - Ulysses himself. Dallapiccola has created a "drama of the mind," but drama nevertheless. Furthermore, it's, in Monteverdi's terms, "drama per musica." The drama occurs as much in the music as in the stage action, although the music is not conventionally dramatic - no Verdian shouts, no Puccini swells. Most of it is fairly low-key. Don't bother waiting for a hummable tune - the sinful sweet of opera. I love hummable tunes, but often they obscure the drama, and opera, for me, means primarily drama. By this test, Dallapiccola has written a great opera.

Dallapiccola asks at the very beginning the central question, which quickly turns existential: Why does Ulysses continue to wander? The Trojan War and the wrath of Poseidon - Homer's primary motivators of the action - get short shrift. Dallapiccola contends that Ulysses' wandering comes from within. We see this for almost the entire work not through Ulysses himself, but through the women he meets and rejects: Calypso, Nausicaa, Circe, Melantho, and even Penelope. His restlessness is summed up in the line "Guardare, meravigliarsi, e tornar a guardare" ("To gaze, to marvel, and to return to gazing"), repeated throughout the opera. That is, he cannot rest, but must continually move on to something else. This, for Ulysses, is wisdom. The sea he travels on represents both the world and wisdom. However, it teaches him at a price. Calypso at the very beginning of the opera tells him, "Son, soli un' altra volta, il tuo core e il mare" ("Alone, once more, are your heart and the sea" - a line from Machado, incidentally). Ulysses' gains his knowledge at the cost of cutting himself off from those he loves. The monsters he meets, as Circe points out, are those found in his own heart, a notion also found in Martinu's Ariane. To know himself, he must travel.

Frankly, Dallapiccola hasn't made things easy either on the performers or on the listener. This performance comes from a Radio France concert of 1975. Here and there, one encounters some fluffs, but overall Bour and his players let you in on the greatness of this work. Bour gets movement in a score often lacking obvious impulse. The drama, rarified as it is, nevertheless comes out due to the efforts of such wonderful singers as Colette Herzog playing both Calypso and Penelope, Gwynn Cornell as both Circe and Melantho, and Jean-Pierre Chevalier as Eurymachus. Claudio Desderi comes over as a crude, stentorian Ulysses, but the character throughout most of the opera does very little. As I've pointed out, we see Ulysses by the reactions of others, rather than by his own words and deeds. The exception to this comes at the end - the hero's final (and only) aria. Desderi does well enough, without actually breaking through to the revelatory. This is probably the only recording of Ulisse for quite a while, and it will serve.

S.G.S. (November 2004)