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Scene from The Return of Ulysses [Photo by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]
02 Apr 2009

Return of Ulysses in San Francisco

William Kentridge is a South African artist who works in charcoal and eraser (smudges) on paper, in small animated film and video segments (black and white), in theater, and now in opera. Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses was his first operatic project that took place in 1998 in collaboration with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Theater.

Claudio Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Directed by William Kentridge. Revival directed by Luc de Wit. Produced by Pacific Operaworks, Seattle. Musical direction by Stephen Stubbs. Featuring the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.

Above: Scene from The Return of Ulysses [Photo by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]


This 1998 production has been revived just now by Seattle’s Pacific Operaworks, using Mr. Kentridge’s original South African puppet collaborators, for performances in Seattle (March 11-21) and in San Francisco (March 24-29) in conjunction with SF Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, William Kentridge: Five Themes (through May 31).

Mr. Kentridge’s art has been shown in many of the major modern art museums in Europe and America, at times in conjunction with performances of The Return of Ulysses, and these often with major musical collaborators. It was then obvious for Mr. Kentridge to take on Mozart’s puppet-like opera, The Magic Flute, which he did for Brussel’s Théâtre Monnaie in 2005, a production that made its way to the Brooklyn Academy in 2007. From there it is but a small step up (or maybe a giant leap) to Shostakovitch’s The Nose for The Metropolitan Opera in 2010.

Mr. Kentridge’s first ambition was to be an actor, though it soon became apparent that his greater talent was that of an artist. His vision though has remained theatrical. The San Francisco MOMA exhibition includes a series of large charcoal illustrations based on a version of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist Roi Ubu (1896) at Johannesburg’s Junction Avenue Theater Company, where he has often worked as an actor and director.

Mr. Kentridge’s is a man of the theater. His parents were lawyers and civil rights advocates in pre-Apartheid South Africa, thus Mr. Kentridge’s art is genetically imbued with the theatrics of domestic and civil politics, and his colors are black and white, with an occasional line or splash of primary color, usually red.

The SF MOMA exhibition includes Mr. Kentridge’s preparatory studies for The Magic Flute, and preliminary visual experimentation for The Nose. The Magic Flute exhibit is Mr. Kentridge’s model stage box, its surfaces illustrated by dark mini-video images for the Queen of the Night that contrast with the enlightened bright images of Sarastro (all the while accompanied by a medley from Mozart’s opera). Preparatory studies for The Nose are eight very large, black and white video projections on the walls of a large gallery (with only ambient sound, no Shostakovitch). Most striking of the impressive group were a Cossack dancer repeating a movement, and another of Mr. Kentridge (an Alfred Hitchcock look alike) walking in and out of a white space. The sense is that Gogol [author of The Nose] has met his match.

As Monteverdi’s two extant Venetian operas exist only in embryonic form when compared to modern opera scores, Ulysses and Poppea both require modern editions before they can be attempted by opera companies. Progressively these performing editions have moved to purer Baroque musical practices, contemporary audiences easily perceiving the integrity of the original musical and dramatic inspiration.

And at the same time we have had the good fortune to see these embryos developed freehand into very effective modern works — Raymond Leppard’s Poppea at one extreme, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Ulysses at another, Barry Kosky’s Poppea for the Vienna Schauspielhaus (actors who sing, piano and three cellos in the pit), and of course William Kentridge’s Ulysses, Monteverdi’s Baroque tapestry magnified into a focused delirium of the last one hundred minutes of Ulysses life.

In much of his art Mr. Kentridge is intrigued by simple mechanics, and certainly that of puppetry. Thus it is no surprise that his continuo (a small, non-specific group of instruments that accompanies sung text, the only accompaniment Monteverdi’s Venetian operas require) was a vista, make the players’ physical movements a part of the show. The continuo stretched across a slightly raised midstage platform. Led by Pacific Operaworks music director Stephen Stubbs on chitarrone (theorbo), the continuo was an additional theorbo, a baroque harp, two violins and a viola da gamba/cello. Maestro Stubbs and this combination of instruments provided a warm, smooth and sensual continuum of music, rarely disturbed by rhythmic punctuation or other coloristic intrusions.

The high back of the continuo platform divided the front stage from a more complicated upstage playing area, as the back wall of the orchestra platform allowed the nearly life sized puppets to be seen without their operators, animating them by sticks from below (see photo). On the front stage the vista puppeteers were silently one with their puppets, imbuing their movements with their own humanity, though the voice of puppet was a concert dressed singer, concentrating his gaze on the face of the puppet, and effecting the gestures of one of the puppet’s arms. The effect was a humanity of always profound and sometimes terrifying proportion.

If Monteverdi supercharged the intoned, impassioned speech imagined by Renaissance philologists as that of ancient tragedy, Pacific Opera Works took this heated musicality a further step by providing us a Ulysses who projected this text in inspired musical periods that were heroic, almost super human in musical effect, that grew into the sublime final duet with Penelope. The singer, Ross Hauck, is active in music ministry in the Northwest. Mr. Hauck was well supported by his Penelope, Laura Pudwell. The production’s star turn was Met singer Cyndia Sieden (Love and Athena), who was joined by five accomplished performers who enacted Penelope’s maid, Ulysses’ tutor, his son, and his rivals, and all hinted at the presences of the plethora of divine forces in Monteverdi’s original.

More a multimedia event than an integrated opera production, Mr. Kentridge’s Return of Ulysses was the combination of these musical forces with puppets animated by puppeteers (though the puppets were sometimes in solo, frozen movement, like comic book illustrations), plus a black and white video component projected on a large screen hung above the upstage playing area. As Mr. Kentridge’s Ulysses lies dying in a Johannesburg hospital this video takes us into his body through medical diagnostic imaging, at other times we see into his death delirium by the images in front of which his life plays back. Never a commentary, the video was always an immediate part of the momentary action. While these components remained a montage, changing focus for me was seamless though my experience will have been my own, not that of my companions. Yet in the end the montage did not build to a convincing apotheosis of love in death — and this was Mr. Kentridge’s attempted ending, not Monteverdi’s.

With this production (its first!) Pacific Operaworks has established itself as a national level producer of opera, San Francisco’s Artaud Theater has proven itself a fine theater for Baroque opera, SF MOMA has firmly established itself as an enlightened presenter of multimedia art. And Mr. Kentridge is on his way to the arguably enlightened Metropolitan Opera. The Nose will be an extraordinary event for the opera world.

Michael Milenski

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