Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Bartoli a dream Cenerentola in Amsterdam

With her irresistible cocktail of spontaneity and virtuosity, Cecilia Bartoli is a beloved favourite of Amsterdam audiences. In triple celebratory mode, the Italian mezzo-soprano chose Rossini’s La Cenerentola, whose bicentenary is this year, to mark twenty years of performing at the Concertgebouw, and her twenty-fifth performance at its Main Hall.

Winterreise : a parallel journey

Matthew Rose and Gary Matthewman Winterreise: a Parallel Journey at the Wigmore Hall, a recital with extras. Schubert's winter journey reflects the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, where images act as signposts mapping the protagonist's psychological journey.

Anna Bolena in Lisbon

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.

Oh, What a Night in San Jose

It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.

Billy Budd in Madrid

Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.

A riveting Nixon in China at the Concertgebouw

American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.

English song: shadows and reflections

Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.

A charming Pirates of Penzance revival at ENO

'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan anymore.’ This was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up, made it doubly welcome.

A Relevant Madama Butterfly

On Feb 3, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s dramatic opera Madama Butterfly. Sandra Lopez was the naive fifteen-year-old who falls hopelessly in love with the American Naval Officer.

Johan Reuter sings Brahms with Wiener Philharmoniker

In the last of my three day adventure, I headed to Vienna for the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein (my first time!) for Mahler and Brahms.

Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Head to Asia

In Amsterdam legend Janine Jansen and the seventh Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, Daniele Gatti, came together for their first engagement in a ravishing performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Verdi’s Requiem with the Berliner Philharmoniker

I extravagantly scheduled hearing the Berliner, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Wiener Philharmoniker, to hear these three top orchestra perform their series programmes opening the New Year.

Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher in Lyon

There is no bigger or more prestigious name in avant-garde French theater than Romeo Castellucci (b. 1960), the Italian metteur en scène of this revival of Arthur Honegger’s mystère lyrique, Joan of Arc at the Stake (1938) at the Opéra Nouvel in Lyon.

A New Look at Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio

On January 28, 2017, Los Angeles Opera premiered James Robinson’s nineteen twenties production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which places the story on the Orient Express. Since Abduction is a work with spoken dialogue like The Magic Flute, the cast sang their music in German and spoke their lines in English.

Giasone in Geneva

Fecund Jason, father of his wife Isifile’s twins and as well father of his seductress Medea’s twins, does indeed have a problem — he prefers to sleep with and wed Medea. In this resurrection of the most famous opera of the seventeenth century he evidently also sleeps with Hercules.

Falstaff in Genoa

A Falstaff that raised-the-bar ever higher, this was a posthumous resurrection of Luca Ronconi’s masterful staging of Verdi’s last opera, the third from last of the 83 operas Ronconi staged during his lifetime (1933-2015). And his third staging of Falstaff following Salzburg in 1993 and Florence in 2006.

Traviata in Seattle

One of Aidan Lang’s first initiatives as artistic director of Seattle Opera was to encourage his board to formulate a “mission statement” for the fifty-year old company. The document produced was clear, simple, and anodyne. Seattle Opera would aim above all to create work appealing both to the emotions and reason of the audience.

Wagner at the Deutsche Oper Berlin Part II: Kasper Holten’s angelic Lohengrin

Contrary to Stolzi’s multidimensional Parsifal, Holten’s simple setting of Lohengrin felt timeless with its focus on the drama between characters. Premiering in 2012, nothing too flashy and with a clever twist,

Wagner at the Deutsche Oper Berlin Part I: Stölzl’s Psychedelic Parsifal

Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) consistently serves up superlatively sung Wagner productions. This Fall, its productions of Philipp Stölzl's Parsifal and Kasper Holten's Lohengrin offered intoxicating musical affairs. Annette Dasch, Klaus Florian Vogt, and Peter Seiffert reached for the stars. Even when it comes down to last minute replacements, the casting is topnotch.

Donna abbandonata: Temple Song Series

Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Tom Randle as Ulisse and Brian Galliford as Iro [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]
29 Mar 2011

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, ENO

Benedict Andrews’ thought-provoking new production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, the latest of English National Opera’s innovative stagings at the Young Vic, juxtaposes images of unremitting modernity with a tapestry of archaic aural colours, all placed within an antique frame which resonates with universal emotions.

Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

Human Frailty: Iestyn Morris; Time: Francisco Javier Borda; Fortune: Ruby Hughes; Cupid: Katherine Manley; Penelope: Pamela Helen Stephen; Ericlea: Diana Montague; Melanto: Katherine Manley; Eurimaco: Thomas Walker; Ulisse: Tom Randle; Minerva: Ruby Hughes; Eumete: Nigel Robson; Iro: Brian Galliford; Telemaco: Thomas Hobbes; Three Suitors—Antinoo: Francisco Javier Borda, Pisandro: Iestyn Morris, Antinomo: Samuel Boden. Conductor: Jonathan Cohen. Director: Benedict Andrews. Set Designer: Börkur Jónsson. Costume Designer: Alice Babidge. Lighting Designer: Jon Clarke. English National Opera at the Young Vic Theatre, London, Thursday 24th March, 2010.

Above: Tom Randle as Ulisse and Brian Galliford as Iro

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera

 

Mythic and epic tales often seem designed to offer a veiled explanation of an essential truth, as they attempt to use the lessons of the past to make sense of a difficult present. The plot of Il ritorno d’Ulisse is drawn from Homer, filtered through Virgil, and Monteverdi’s musical retelling certainly invokes the power of myth. But, as Penelope awaits the return of her long-lost husband, Ulisse, from the Trojan Wars, the concerns and emotional dramas seem much more human than divine.

Indeed, Andrews’ production commences with a shocking parade of ‘Human Frailty’, crudely masked and brutality dragged, like a dog or abused prisoner of war, onto the stage by his cruel masters, Time, Love and Fortune. The message is clear: man is pitifully frail, a mere plaything of the gods. And, man’s infinite suffering at the hands of indifferent deities is unambiguously portrayed in the unfolding drama. The anguish and frustration of the protagonists is unceasingly evident as we peer through the transparent walls of designer Börkur Jónsson’s striking set, which continuously revolves to allow for microscopic scrutiny of the characters’ agonies.

The monochrome set pitilessly exposes mankind’s defencelessness. Dusty sheets roll back to reveal Penelope’s glass-sided, pseudo-loft space, equipped with cocktail bar, cinema room and other requisites of modern luxury living. But, beneath the civilised veneer lies a brutal reality. Smart-suited suitors leer and lounge in louche fashion; Ulisse’s faithful old nurse, Ericlea, serves up supper, only for her culinary efforts to be flung in fury at the transparent walls; the television screen relentlessly relays brutal reports from the battlegrounds of war. Penelope paces and prowls, tended by two considerate and compassionate maids who try to shield her from the sexual avariciousness of the lewd suitors.

Under harsh spotlights, the inhabitants clutch and grasp at the walls. The pristine glass is soon stained and smeared with food and drink, and ultimately splattered with human flesh and blood.

Nothing escapes the voyeuristic gaze. Just as we witness every private agony and torment, so the inhabitants of the house stare inexorably at the action which unfolds outside, as characters step through the glass door onto the front of the stage. The sufferings within mirror those without, and this is enhanced by some effective visual doubling: the Goddess Minerva, Ruby Hughes, is dressed as Penelope’s double, emphasising her power as she controls and manipulates her human puppets.

The ubiquitous psychological angst is also conveyed in the form of magnified images which are projected onto two vast screens to left and right. However, the singularity of emotional affekt and the unchanging nature of the visual expressions quickly reduces the dramatic impact of these unremitting close-ups of grief and distress; as the opera progresses, the contorted facial gestures become a distraction.

Andrews’ direction is tireless in its attention to detail, if somewhat tiring in its demands on the audience, who face quite a challenge to comprehend, even observe, every nuance, motif and metaphor. However, the cast are uniformly committed and intense, communicating Christopher Cowell’s superb translation with vigour if not always with equal clarity of diction.

The_Return_of_Ulysses_Kathe.gifKatherine Manley as Cupid and Thomas Walker as Eurimaco

Neither Tom Randle nor Pamela Helen Stephen are early-music ‘specialists’ but, as the divided lovers, Ulisse and Penelope, they bring much dramatic insight and conviction to their respective roles.

Randle summons all his dramatic and musical resources, and powerfully exploits his muscular physique, to convey the nature and degree of the emotional suffering and transformation undergone by the conquering hero. A ravaged war hero, broken by the ruthless events he has witnessed and the vicious acts he has performed, driven to the very edge of sanity, Ulisse wanders in the margins, cloaked like a wandering hobo, draped in shadows. A pathetic victim, urinated upon by the social underclass, Randle wins our unquestioning sympathy, his beautiful tenor possessing a slight grain which keeps sentimentality at bay. Consequently, the Tarantino-esque savagery with which he later despatches of his ‘rival’ suitors is appalling and disturbing, following the fragile pathos of his return to his homeland. And, the amorality of the senseless violence is further emphasised by the fact that Ulisse’s blood-thirsty revenge is documented by a newsreel cameraman, his focus steady and sure, untroubled by the horrors of the scene he is recording. Randle retreats to the shower room in an attempt to wash away the blood and gore, and to cleanse his emotional wounds, but it is clear that he returns to his wife a damaged man, perhaps irrevocably so, and the reunion with his long-suffering wife is tinged with wretchedness.

The lament of an abandoned woman was a standard topos in early seventeenth-century opera, and while Pamela Helen Stephen does not have an especially distinctive voice, she is perfect for the role of enduring but dignified victim that Andrews envisages. She has a particularly affective lower register, and as her voice descends it intertwines with emotional force with the instrumental fabric. Stephen’s delivery of the recitative is flexible and confident. Penelope’s ‘refusal’ to sing in an aria form becomes a potent metaphor for her emotional state as she refuses to give way to love; only when she recognises Ulisse can she express herself in song, and Stephen’s rendering of Penelope’s aria, ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’, is a powerful and climactic moment as her distress is transmuted to joy.

The_Return_of_Ulysses_Pamel.gifPamela Helen Stephen as Penelope

Ruby Hughes is a sensuous and assertive Minerva, domineering and somewhat sinister — Ulisse meets the goddess in the form of a small, rather unnerving, ventriloquist’s dummy. Hughes powerfully conveys the Goddess’s pride and hauteur as she manipulates the ‘puppets’ in her control, before she too succumbs to emotional breakdown and collapse. Here, Andrews parts company with the myth, for traditionally Minerva is associated with culture and wisdom, rather than the lustful licentiousness of Andrews’ conception. And while one might accept this re-imagining of Minerva, dressed in a slinky, sequinned black gown, it’s harder still to understand why she later smears herself with blood, and douses herself in white talcum powder …

One of the finest performances of the evening comes from Thomas Hobbs, as Ulisse’s son, Telemacho. Hobbs has a strong, focused tenor voice, but one which is sufficiently flexible to convey emotions ranging from grief to self-composure, hope to wonderment, and his reunion with Ulisse is immensely moving.

Nigel Robson, as the shepherd Eumete, presents a touching portrayal of a loyal servant. And, his interaction with Brian Galliford’s gluttonous, parasitic Iro is superb. Living off the wealth of the suitors, Iro appears at several points in Il ritorno as a figure of fun: he is mocked by Eumete in Act I (but not without himself making some pointed comments on the pastoral life) and is thrashed by Ulisse in Act II. However, his scene at the beginning of Act III takes on a different edge, and Galliford’s voice surpasses the comic to take on a tragic tone as Iro veers towards madness, providing a significant focus for the opera as a whole.

The inclusion of scurrilous and comic characters is just one of the features which were, by 1639, standard in Venetian public opera. Many were drawn from the theatre — indeed, Iro is reminiscent of a Shakespearian Fool — especially the commedia dell’arte, such as nagging nurses, flirtatious servants, and regular recourse to magic and disguise. But one cannot help but feel that Andrews is stretching the coarseness of these dramatic predecessors a step too far when Katherine Manley’s Melanto removes her underwear and lifts her skirt, to facilitate her lover Eurimaco’s (Thomas Walker) sexual advances. Such vulgarities among the minor characters risks distracting from the high quality of their singing: Diana Montague is a fine Ericlea, and among the suitors, Samuel Boden’s Anfinomo manages to rise above the exaggerated crudeness of the action.

The_Return_of_Ulysses_Ruby_.gifRuby Hughes as Fortune and the Three Suitors (Antinoo: Francisco Javier Borda, Pisandro: Iestyn Morris and Antinomo: Samuel Boden)

Conductor Jonathan Cohen plays a major role in maintaining coherence and momentum. Leading a 13-piece ensemble, he drives the music forward; he has an intuitive sense of the rhythmic vitality of this idiom, propelled as it is by muscular bass lines, and achieves seamless transitions between the recitative and arioso numbers which form a mosaic structure of speech- and song-like fragments. The instrumental sinfonias and ritornellos are well-paced, and the timbre of viola da gamba, lirone, theorbo and bassoon, at times rough and nasally, complements the earthiness of the events on stage.

In this striking production, Andrews offers us much to cogitate and digest — perhaps a tad too much. For Venetian operas of the mid-seventeenth century were essentially convivial entertainments fulfilling specific social, economic and cultural functions. While our attempts to find deeper meanings and fundamental statements on the human condition within them may be somehow essential to the way in which we wish to relate to opera, we may be in danger of fundamentally missing the point.

For, although she is undoubtedly besieged by Time, Fortune and Love, Penelope is not so humanly frail as to give in to them: indeed, the whole point of the opera is that her virtue and constancy provide weapons against Time and Fortune, and that her love is not the flighty, inconstant kind that is represented by Love in the Prologue. In this sense, the action of the opera actually disproves or counters the prologue. Andrews’ production presents a sustained reading — at times intriguing, elsewhere distracting — but is it one which is true to Monteverdi’s score?

Claire Seymour

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):