(sung in English, as The Return of Ulysses)
|Penelope (Pamela Helen Stephen)
Images: Johan Persson
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)
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
|Suitors, Ulisse, Iro (Brian Galliford), and Melanto
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)
This, then, strikes me as essential theatre for anyone who can still acquire a ticket. Three cheers to all concerned!