Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Director: James Conway
Conductor: Jonathan Peter Kenny
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
With Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria from about 1640 – now translated, slightly less literally than usual, as Ulysses’ Homecoming – we are in at the dawn of opera: the same composer’s Orfeo may be the first opera and is certainly the earliest still being performed. However, that makes it normal fare for English Touring Opera whose successful seasons of baroque works are possibly the greatest achievement of this small-scale, but unceasingly ambitious, company.
Everything is perfectly in place for Ulysses’ Homecoming. The General Director of ETO, James Conway is an acknowledged specialist in 17th and 18th Century opera. Jonathan Peter Kenny brings to the pit the idiomatic familiarity with the baroque gained through years as one of the country’s finest countertenors. The Old Street Band, rejoicing in the tones of theorbo, dulcian, and gamba and with two recorders in the stage box, is superb.
The prologue is delivered by Human Frailty, finely, if plaintively, sung by Clint van der Linde, wrapped in a fishing net on Takis’ stylised set. As the god-like abstractions Time, Fortune and Love, appearing like weathermen through doors on the upper level of a stage wall, delineate the weaknesses of Mankind, the variety of orchestral colouring, without brass or much in the way of woodwind, promises delights to come.
And so there are, though with some reservations about the later stages of the first half. The placing of the interval at half way through Act Two seems odd. The action just stops – admittedly at an important dramatic point, but with no musical resolution. 20 minutes of music later, the end of the wonderful scene of Ulysses and his bow almost demands the placement of the interval. The reasons for avoiding the first half of 105 minutes are clear, but there is no law against two intervals. As it is, an 85-minute first half, shorn of its climax, seems long.
Monteverdi and his librettist, Giacomo Badoaro, stay pretty close to Homer in the story of Ulysses (Odysseus) returning after the Trojan War to Ithaca where his wife, Penelope, is warding off persistent suitors. Having disposed of these, Ulysses’ problem is to make his wife recognise him which, in the opera, leads to a beautifully serene final duet.
In Monteverdi’s version the goddess Minerva (Athena) takes a particularly pro-active role, negotiating the happy ending with Neptune who has been working for Ulysses’ downfall. The gods-and-humans dichotomy is well brought out by the difference in levels – Minerva straddling the two – and by costume, the humans in the period (or, rather, periods) dress, the gods modern, Andrew Slater’s Neptune like a Grimsby fisherman.
The structure of the opera throws the emotional weight on Penelope and Carolyn Dobbin while singing stylishly and precisely, involves us as a character only in the later stages. Benedict Nelson is a fine forthright Ulysses, singing with greater freedom as he moves from beggar to hero. Katie Bray is outstanding as a coolly authoritative Minerva, sailing through the baroque ornamentation with complete control. Among an admirable cast of ten, all making light of some awkward phrasing in the English translation, Adam Player’s epicene glutton, Irus, has the most opportunities to amuse –and seizes then ravenously.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Alastair Muir