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

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.

A double dose of Don Quixote at the Wigmore Hall

Since their first appearance in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary master-piece, during the Spanish Golden Age, the ingenuous and imaginative knight-errant, Don Quixote, and his loyal subordinate and squire, Sancho Panza, have touched the creative imagination of composers from Salieri to Strauss, Boismortier to Rodrigo.

Bampton Classical Opera: A double bill of divine comedies

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2016 double-bill ‘touched down’ at St John’s Smith Square last night, following performances in The Deanery Garden at Bampton and The Orangery of Westonbirt School earlier this summer.

Mahler’s Second, Concertgebouw

Daniele Gatti opened the first series of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s season with a slightly uneven performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. With four planned, this staple repertoire for the RCO meant to introduce Gatti to the RCO subscribers.

Mad About San Jose’s Lucia

Opera San Jose opened a commendably impassioned Lucia di Lammermoor that sets the company’s bar very high indeed as it begins its new season.

ROH, Norma

The approach of the 2016-17 opera season has brought rising anticipation and expectation for the ROH’s new production - the first at Covent Garden for almost 30 years - of Bellini’s bel canto master-piece, Norma.

The Changing of the Guard

Last June, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for his last concert as Principal Conductor.

Morgen und Abend at Berlin

After its world premiere at Royal Opera House in London last year, the German première of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Morgen und Abend took place at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Der Freischütz at Unter den Linden

Rarely have I experienced such fabulous singing in such a dreadful production. With magnificent voices, Andreas Schager and Dorothea Röschmann rescued Michael Thalheimer’s grotesque staging of von Weber’s Der Freischütz. At Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Alexander Soddy led a richly detailed, transparent and brilliantly glowing Berliner Staatskapelle.

Prom 74: Verdi's Requiem

For the penultimate BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 9 September 2016, Marin Alsop conducted the BBC Youth Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi's Requiem with soloists Tamara Wilson, Alisa Kolosova, Dimitri Pittas, and Morris Robinson.

British Youth Opera: English Eccentrics

“Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”

Prom 68: a wonderful Semiramide

When I look back on the 2016 Proms season, this Opera Rara performance of Semiramide - the last opera that Rossini wrote for Italy - will be, alongside Pekka Kuusisto’s thrillingly free and refreshing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto - one of the stand-out moments.

Double Bill by Oper am Rhein

Of all the places in Germany, Oper am Rhein at Theater Duisburg staged an intriguing American double bill of rarities. An experience that was well worth the trip to this desolate ghost town, remnant of industrial West Germany.

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):