Friday 25 March 2011

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, English National Opera, 24 March 2011

Young Vic Theatre

(sung in English, as The Return of Ulysses)

Penelope (Pamela Helen Stephen)
Images: Johan Persson
L’Humana Fragilità, Pisandro – Iestyn Morris
Il Tempo, Antinoo – Francisco Javier Borda
La Fortuna, Minerva – Ruby Hughes
Amore, Melanto – Katherine Manley
Penelope – Pamela Helen Stephen
Ericlea – Diana Montague
Eurimaco – Thomas Walker
Ulisse – Tom Randle
Minerva – Ruby Hughes
Eumete – Nigel Robson
Iro – Brian Galliford
Telemaco – Thomas Hobbs

Benedict Andrews (director)
Börkur Jónsson (set designs)
Alice Babidge (costumes)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Sean Bacon (video)

Members of the Orchestra of the English National Opera
Jonathan Cohen (conductor)

Minerva (Ruby Hughes) and Ulisse (Tom Randle)
ENO has hit form again, offering my best operatic experience since Elektra last summer in Salzburg. And with Monteverdi: I should hardly have expected it, not least since my prejudices lie very much against contemporary performance practice and translation of his libretti from Italian. The intimate, verging upon claustrophobic, space of the Young Vic was doubtless crucial: a proper rather than merely fashionable experience of theatre ‘in the round’, which could never have worked in the Coliseum.

Though in a literal sense it would be quite true to say that I had travelled over the course of two evenings from musical drama of the present day (Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s new opera, Kommilitonen!) towards the early days of opera, the statement might be found misleading, for this was a thoroughly modern Monteverdi we encountered. Kommilitonen! proved enjoyable but also a little dated. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, as one of the two surviving late operas by Monteverdi, already stands quite distinct from his first, L’Orfeo, let alone from slightly earlier works by other composers. The dramatic orbit of Ulisse and L’incoronazione di Poppea almost inevitably puts one in mind of Monteverdi’s contemporary, Shakespeare; both dramatists remain strikingly modern, not least when contrasted with many of their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century successors. Purcell notwithstanding, one must look to Gluck and then to Mozart to find a musical dramatist fully worthy of the honour of heir, if unwittingly so, to Monteverdi. Yet, if Poppea still shocks to the core, its devastating psychological realism placed in the service of a truly amoral, (quasi-)historical tale, its Homeric predecessor has struggled somewhat to escape its shadows. ENO’s decision to devote its now-annual excursion to the Young Vic to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, or The Return of Ulysses (to his Homeland), was therefore welcome indeed – and must surely have convinced any doubters that this is a work fully worthy to be ranked with its more celebrated sibling. As ever, there remained the problem of translation into English, but this translation, Christopher Cowell’s, was much better than most of those recently foisted upon us: it respected Giacomo Bodoaro’s libretto after Homer, for which many thanks.

Three suitors (L-R: Iestyn Hughes, Samuel Boden, Francisco
Javier Borda), Penelope, and Minerva
The Prologue makes it quite clear that this is a contemporary drama. Human Frailty is abused, Abu Ghraib style, by Time, Fortune, and Cupid, the evidence gloatingly captured on camera. I was reminded of Barrie Kosky’s Iphigénie en Tauride for Berlin’s Komische Oper; perhaps the resemblance is not entirely coincidental, for director, Benedict Andrews, also Australian, divides his time between Sydney and Berlin, and works at the Schaubühne Theatre. During this abuse, we see Penelope’s parallel agonies on screen, Sean Bacon’s excellent video footage permitting us still-closer-up attention to detail, often but not always that of Penelope. As the Prologue comes to an end, Ithaca’s palace comes into our view – and will never leave it. A stylish, modern apartment (or hotel room?), encased by glass that is smeared by a series of depredations, it is Penelope’s prison: the ever-visible space for the ‘life’ of a ruler’s wife. Börkur Jónsson’s set designs are first-rate, drawing us in and yet repelling us at the same time. Maids fuss and conspire – whom can she trust? – whilst sharply-suited dressed political suitors roam. The tie pins give them away, though: we know that none would be able to string the bow of Ulysses. These cowards, brutal if ultimately ineffectual, pleasure themselves with no thought of Penelope as a woman. In what seemed to me a rare miscalculation, she appears to respond briefly to them physically as they offered their gifts. Perhaps her acts are intended as a trap, but they jar with her constancy and do not seem to lead anywhere.

Suitors, Ulisse, Iro (Brian Galliford), and Melanto
(Katherine Manley)
Some scenes are missing, of course: one cannot help wondering what the sea-music for nereids and sirens was like, likewise the ballet of the Moors. To augment the ravages of time, the director introduced large cuts, the remaining score running – according to the programme, though I did not check – for two-and-a-quarter hours, three acts compressed into two parts. Neptune, Jupiter, and Juno disappear completely. As so often, we seem uncomfortable allotting the gods their role. Minerva remains, though, adopting Penelope’s form and availing herself of the suitors, she perhaps seems more the trickster than Ulysses; is she a goddess at all? Apart from the musico-dramatic loss in itself, there are dramatic consequences, for we miss out on Neptune’s crucial emphasis upon ‘ritorno’ (‘return’). Andrews’s emphasis, however, seems quite different: this is less the story of Ulysses’s return, or rather still less than is often the case, and more Penelope’s tale. However, it works: there is no claim that this was a definitive Ulisse, but it was a powerful musico-dramatic experience.

Moreover, at the end, the balance shifts once again. Reminding us of the images of war that have permeated the drama throughout, not least on the apartment television screen (war in the Mediterranean? surely not…), we suffer Ulysses’s pain upon return: the lack of a role, the rejection, and of course, the bloody revenge he inflicts upon those who have defiled his home, captured on film, just like the initial abuse of the Prologue. After that, his extended shower scene attempts to cleanse, but the only hope, and it may prove vain, lies with Penelope; whatever the beauties of the final duet, the future is uncertain. Cuts may have reshaped the drama but ultimately they did not distort it.

Eurimaco (Thomas Walker), Iro, Penelope, and

Jonathan Cohen led members of the ENO Orchestra with great dramatic flair. I might hanker after Raymond Leppard, or, better still, Hans Werner Henze’s extraordinary Mediterranean realisation, but this was not hair-shirt Monteverdi, puritanism that would be quite at odds with his Renaissance/Early Baroque world - as a celebrated former Ulisse noted in an interview he gave me not so long ago. The musicians may have been relatively few in number, but a large band was not necessary in the Young Vic; again, the Coliseum would have been another matter. The continuo group was varied. Rebecca Miles’s recorder added variety to the one-to-a-part strings during certain ritornelli, whilst the introduction of Daniel Jamison’s bassoon brought just a hint of Henze’s earthy pagan reimagining.

Penelope and Ulisse (final scene)
If ever a role were made for Dame Janet Baker, it was that of Penelope, though it is hard to imagine Pamela Helen Stephen’s great predecessor in this particular production. It is to Stephen’s credit that she very much made the role her own; I only mention Baker since she would have been an inevitable reference point for many. What Stephen lacked in refulgence and sheer nobility of tone, she made up in dignity – and misery – of stage presence. We felt her pain in anything but the modern, debased, sentimental way. Tom Randle is such an intelligent musical actor that it would be easy to take him for granted, but one hardly could on this occasion. The complexities, some of them dark indeed, of Ulysses’s character were searingly portrayed, without the slightest hint of melodrama. Thomas Hobbs made an interesting Telemachus, vulnerable – including memories of the accursed Helen – and scarred by his experience, not least that of ‘rescue’ by Ruby Hughes’s ambiguous Minerva, another fine portrayal. Katherine Manley and Thomas Walker played dangerous, erotic – and utterly convincing – games as Penelope’s maid, Melanto, and her lover, Eurymachus; their lust, for power and for pretty much everything else, was an ongoing reminder of the real (godlike?) forces at play. My only regret concerning Diana Montague’s Ericlea was that she did not have more to sing: what a pleasure it was to hear Montague again, and to share in so faithful – in every sense – a performance. It was an equal pleasure to welcome back long-standing Monteverdian Nigel Robson, who provided a moving portrayal of the honest shepherd, Eumaeus. Brain Galliford’s childish, yet nevertheless sinister, parasite, Irus offered splendid contrast, though the strange scene of his demise, in which Monteverdi’s speech-rhythms seem (at least) to presage Mussorgsky and Janáček, offered pathos too. A ghastly trio of suitors completed the cast, Francisco Javier Borda, Iestyn Morris, and Samuel Boden, all throwing themselves wholeheartedly into Andrews’s – and Monteverdi’s – vision. I was especially taken by the finely shaped tenor of Boden and the icy clarity of Morris’s counter-tenor.

This, then, strikes me as essential theatre for anyone who can still acquire a ticket. Three cheers to all concerned!