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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

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