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Ulysse et Pénélope -- Circa 450 BCE -- Musée du Louvre
19 Sep 2006

Old Music In a New Home — WNO stages a brand new production of Monteverdi’s “Ulysses”

In his introduction to the Welsh National Opera’s celebratory 60th anniversary season programme Carlo Rizzi, their Music Director, declares that “we are bringing the best of Wales to the rest of the world — and the best of the world to Wales”.

And with this brand new production of Monteverdi’s “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” (The Return of Ulysses) in collaboration with the Royal Danish Opera, staged in WNO’s stunning new theatre at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, both sentiments are upheld. “In these stones horizons sing” is blazoned in huge letters across the gleaming metal carapace of the new building; words that Monteverdi himself might have set to music. It is an exciting and challenging greeting to any visitor, and WNO did not disappoint.

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The genius of Monteverdi’s free-flowing music drama is powerfully displayed and faithfully reincarnated by two of today’s most brilliant exponents of baroque opera, director David Alden and conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini. Alden’s trademark wit and visual quirkiness is certainly present, yet his solid-seeming but softly-glowing sets always support, not detract, from the epic story that unfolds of the wandering hero and his loyal but beleaguered wife. Alden knows exactly when to interpolate the occasional visual joke, or dramatic flourish, yet when the music demands he steps back and gives it and the singers time and space. “Ulysses” is essentially an ensemble opera, and Alden is quoted as saying that his joy in working on it comes partly from the opportunity it gives him to work with, and be integrated with, not only the singers but the musicians as well. If there’s a caveat to his work here it is that he seems unable to resist the almost-obligatory rather sleazy bit of simulated sex from time to time; as with any stage business or comedy, there’s a fine line between joke and boorishness and at times he oversteps it.

However, the integration he speaks of is there for all to see and hear, for equally assured and committed to the brilliance of the old master’s musical invention is Rinaldo Alessandrini in the pit (and on harpsichord continuo) with the WNO’s own fleet-footed orchestra augmented for this production by some six or seven period instrument performers, including the now-essential theorbos. They, together with the baroque cello and harp support much of the vocal story telling and it was obvious that an intensely-felt rapport between director, musicians and singers had developed over many days rehearsal. What is left of the original score of 1640 is of course but bare bones - it is up to today’s directors and singers to extrapolate, interpret, and ornament. Last night’s music was spring-heeled and alert, subtle and elegantly attuned to the ever-changing moods of the characters and the mainly youthful band of singers also showed extraordinary command of the vocal idiom.

Although an ensemble opera, there are some characters whose place and import are crucial and here the production was graced with two extremely gifted and dramatically assured singers. The very experienced tenor Paul Nilon took on the title role of the wandering hero, twenty years away from his noble and loyal queen, Penelope, sung here by the richly voiced mezzo soprano Sara Fulgoni. Nilon showed his usual attention to text and detail and his great experience of the idiom, although he is far from being an early music only specialist. His quite soft-grained tenor is so characterful and expressive one sometimes forgets that he is singing, not speaking, yet when needed in moments of high drama such as the hero’s fateful shipwreck or final battle with his would-be usurpers, Nilon musters both thrilling power and heroic tone to great effect. Matching him in dramatic tone, Fulgoni gives us another sort of heroism: that of Penelope’s almost obsessive fidelity to her long-lost husband. Her mix of physical cool regality and warm dark passion simmering below was masterly.

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The supporting 16 characters who weave their way in and out of the story, each displaying an aspect of the human (or divine) condition, were sung well and sometimes excellently so by this quite youthful cast - in fact the standard of both vocal and stage technique was so high that it was heart-warming to think that in the oft-maligned garden that is British opera there are many good young voices pushing up through to the sunlight of international success. Those that caught the eye on opening night included Sarah Tynan, soprano, as Melanto, Iestyn Davies, countertenor, as Human Frailty/Pisandro, and Ed Lyon, tenor, as Telemacho; the latter’s beautifully sung contemplation on the beauty and tragedy of Helen of Troy being particularly memorable.

For a first night, the production seemed to go extraordinarily smoothly, despite some complicated special effects and “sets within sets” whenever the divine but definitely lubricious gods and goddesses became involved, and this was perhaps a direct result of WNO’s declared aim to give its singers and musicians plenty of on-set rehearsal time. Peter Bellingham, WNO’s Executive Director, told me during the single interval that this was one of the greatest benefits of their move just 18 months ago from their old cramped premises to this beautiful, spacious new building, as they now had not only three separate rehearsal spaces for musicians, singers and chorus but also had access to all the sets and practical devices throughout the rehearsal periods. This writer can confirm that the audience is equally well served by an auditorium that frankly takes the breath away upon entering - it was akin to entering some great warm cave deep inside a mountain, its walls appearing carved from solid blocks of purple hued slate, separated by gently curving horizontal strata of gleaming wood that are the balconies and slips. What isn’t Welsh slate (strangely silky to the touch) is honey-coloured wood (the seats, floors, doors) or Welsh wool (traditional tweed upholstery to the seats). The overall effect is a kind of natural sumptuousness, a Celtic chieftain’s palace perhaps, far removed from the painted and gilded houses of London, Europe, and the USA. And even more important, the acoustic has a clarity and brilliance that, I’m told, singers and musicians appreciate and which translates to all reaches of the building.

As Welsh National Opera enter their anniversary season, they have here a new production, and a new house, that they can be proud to show the world. The stones are truly singing, and their horizons can only become wider.

© Sue Loder 2006

“Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”, at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff on 23rd September and then on tour to Oxford, Llandudno, Birmingham, Bristol and Southampton.

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