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Monteverdi's 'The Return of Ulysses'

Remember the Coen brothers' film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The star was George Clooney, playing a fellow with a lot of problems. In fact, the signature tune from the film's soundtrack pretty much says it all about Clooney's character. It's called, "Man of Constant Sorrow."

Clooney plays a man named McGill who's been away from home for a long time. When he finally makes it back, after a harrowing journey, he finds his wife being romanced by another guy. His kids don't even recognize him. If the story sounds familiar, it should. Though he goes by Everett, Mr. McGill's given first name is ... Ulysses.

The movie is based on the epic, The Odyssey, by Homer, and it comes complete with many of Homer's most famous touches, including three sirens and a cyclops. The drama featured on this week's World of Opera is based on the same story. In fact, you might think of Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses as an early, musical version of Homer's original "man of constant sorrow."

Monteverdi's opera also has something else in common with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In their film, the Coen brothers used a variety of traditional, American music — often called "American Roots" music. The soundtrack became so popular - and so closely associated with the term "American Roots" — that it almost seemed like the Coen brothers had invented an entirely new musical genre. They didn't, of course, but they certainly brought it squarely into the mainstream.

Monteverdi did something similar — and even more remarkable. He was one of the first composers ever to write an opera and, with his Orfeo in 1607, he was almost certainly the first to compose a truly great opera. In doing so, Monteverdi brought a genuinely new form of music into the mainstream. All of his operas, including The Return of Ulysses, have played a large part in keeping it there ever since.

The production we're featuring on World of Opera is from the Welsh National Opera, in Cardiff. It stars tenor Paul Nilon as a smoothly romantic Ulysses, and soprano Sara Fulgoni as the long-suffering Penelope.

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