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ROH’s <em>The Return of Ulysses</em> at the Roundhouse
12 Jan 2018

ROH Return to the Roundhouse

Opera transcends time and place. An anonymous letter, printed with the libretto of Monteverdi’s Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia and written two years before his death, assures the reader that Monteverdi’s music will continue to affect and entrance future generations:

ROH’s The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse

A review by Claire Seymour

Above:Production image of The Return of Ulysses

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey


‘Enjoy the music of the never-enough-praised Monteverdi, born to the world so as to rule over the emotions of others ... [which] will be sighed for in future ages at least as far as they can be consoled by his most noble compositions, which are set to last as long as they can resist the ravages of time.’ [1]

Prophetic words. And, they were confirmed at the Camden Roundhouse where the Royal Opera House and the Early Opera Company joined forces to present, in a new English translation by Christopher Cowell, Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses.

It is music, as Monteverdi’s operatic dramas themselves argue and illustrate, that speaks across generations and epochs. The words of afore-mentioned author - ‘Monteverdi was born into the world to control the feelings of others, there being no soul hard enough that he could not turn and move it with his talent’, both singer and listener being ‘carried away by the variety and strength of the same disruptive emotions’ - seem as applicable now as in Monteverdi’s day. It seems to me, then, that there is no need to find contextual or narrative parallels to emphasise or establish the link between past and present. Homer’s poem communicates the grief of absence and the joy of reunion, emotions with which all humanity can empathise.

Ulysses production image Stephen Cummiskey.jpgProduction image. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Director John Fulljames evidently thought differently. As well as excising the gods and goddesses - and thereby eliminating some of the more effusive lyrical moments in the score - he decided that ‘the question of living with the legacy of war feels as if it’s the story of the 21st century’, and that references to modern-day conflicts were in order: so, the community choir became Syrian refugees receiving food parcels from the aid-worker Penelope, and costumes juxtaposed buxom bronze breast-plates with gold Doc Martens, and spangly space blankets with combat fatigues. But, Ulysses is not ‘about’ refugees: the drama is impelled by a ‘home-coming’ which, in the opera’s final duet of reunited love confirms the power of music itself. And, Fulljames neglect of this inexorable progress towards inevitable resolution was problematic.

Tai Oney .jpg Tai Oney (as Peisander) with the community chorus. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

As Ellen Rosand points out, each of the (original) five acts ‘culminates with an action that marks a successive step in Ulisse’s journey homeward: Act I ends with his rejoicing at his arrival in Ithaca, Act II with his reunion with Telemaco, Act III with his vow to slay the Suitors, Act IV with his defeat of the Suitors, and Act V with his reunion with Penelope’. [2] But, in this production, while no-one, not even the instrumentalists, was ever ‘still’, there was no sense of anyone actually going anywhere.

Roderick Williams as Ulysseus © ROH & Roundhouse. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.jpg Ulysses (Roderick Williams). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

When the ROH so successfully staged Orfeo at the Roundhouse in 2015 , Michael Boyd’s production was characterised by bold, dramatic movement, exploiting the possibilities of the venue and capturing the vivacity of Monteverdi’s strings of canzonetti and balletti through the gestures of contemporary dance and show-ground acrobatics. Here, all involved were confined to a central ring, which the singers circled as the ring itself revolved, and into the ‘hole’ of which the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company nestled, while they too rotated.

This incessant circling exacerbated the difficulty, posed by the dimensions and nature of the venue, of creating sustained dramatic engagement between the protagonists and consistent ‘connection’ between cast and audience. As they orbited the musicians, in order to communicate with all ‘corners’ of the Roundhouse singers frequently turned away from each other, disrupting dramatic relationships. Moreover, the amplification that was so subtly and effectively employed in Orfeo in 2015 was less successfully managed here; voices seemed to ebb and flow, again making it difficult, for this listener at least to concentrate, and to discern sustained dramatic and emotional expression (though, the surtitles aloft - yet another ring - were helpful).

The performance was not aided by the unfortunate indisposition of Christine Rice. Rice mimed and mouthed the role of Penelope while Caitlin Hulcup - who, we were informed, had learned the role in a single weekend - stood among the instrumentalists in the doughnut-hole. Hulcup sang with refinement and nuance; but, inevitably and unavoidably, the engagement between the other characters and Penelope was lessened, as they sought to encourage her to cast off her obduracy and anger.

Moreover, while the musicians of the Early Opera Group played for conductor Christian Curnyn with customary stylistic elegance, the musical score was unusually monotone of mood and detached from the dramatic unfolding. While there is a stylistic gulf between the Mantuan Orfeo and the late Venetian operas, Ulysses is still characteristically Monteverdian in its juxtaposition of swiftly shifting emotions and affections, from pathos to passion, despair to delight; but here rhythmic impetus and variety often felt lacking. I barely registered the vivid sinfonia di guerra with its prickly concitato incisiveness. The libretto bears the generic description ‘tragedia ’ but this attests more to the contemporary classicising aesthetic than to a prevailing gloom, and I missed the alleviating heightening of lyricism that occurs in Ulysses’ own vocal expansions, or the dramatic tension which tightens the screw during the testing of the suitors, or the lascivious fun and flippancy of the exchanges between Melantho and Eurymachus.

Ulysses - Williams .jpg Ulysses (Roderick Williams). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Pushing such misgivings aside, though, there is no doubting the eloquence, both vocal and expressive, of Roderick Williams’ account of Ulysses’ trials. Williams sang beautifully: the gentleness of his baritone and the sensitivity of his phrasing and dynamics seem custom-made for Monteverdi’s tender, affecting arioso. But, while it was not entirely Williams’ fault, given that he seemed to have been encouraged to sing much of the role while lying on the floor, one might have found the characterisation rather monochrome: this was a Ulysses in torment, but where was the joy and laughter of ‘Rido, ne so perche’, the bristling bravery of the battle cries or the passionate consummation of the final love duet?

Melantho and Eurymachus.jpg Melantho (Francesca Chiejina) and Eurymachus (Andrew Tortise). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

The ROH has assembled a strong cast and they without exception impressed. Jette Parker Young Artist Francesca Chiejina was a vibrant, vocally lithe Melantho - how did Penelope resist her servant’s seductive exhortations to love? - and she was joined by Andrew Tortise’s Eurymachus in a beguiling love duet (which is long, but in this context felt all too brief). Mark Milhofer enjoyed the swineherd Eumete’s lyrical invocation to Nature, and Susan Bickley provided concentrated emotional focus in the minor role of Eurycleia. Catherine Carby, bashed about in brazen boots, and was a bubbly, plump-voiced Minerva. As the suitors, Nick Pritchard (Amphinomus), Tai Oney (Peisander) and David Shipley (Antinous) were vocally faultless but struggled to make a dramatic impact.

Stuart Jackson was dressed in an ugly fat-suit and bald pate, but his Iro was, ironically, handsomely mellifluous: indeed, one might question whether Jackson’s characteristic vocal elegance and beauty were quite the right channel for a character who lacks all pastoral grace as he repeats and spits musical and verbal motifs? Jackson’s trills were crisp and stylish, but did not conjure a demonic laughter that is a sign of imminent lunacy and eventual, shocking, suicide. There is more depth and range of emotions to this ‘comic’ role than Jackson perhaps intimated, however beautifully he sang.

It was a pity that so much splendid singing was rather let down by a production which span on the spot and lost its way. Monteverdi’s drama is driven by the ever-decreasing distance between its two protagonists, but in this production the distances between characters seemed to grow not diminish. By the close, like Ulysses lost on the high seas for ten years, they all seemed rather adrift.

Claire Seymour

Claudio Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Ulysses/Human Frailty - Roderick Williams, Penelope - Christine Rice and Caitlin Hulcup, Telemachus - Samuel Boden, Minerva/Fortune - Catherine Carby, Eurycleia - Susan Bickley, Melantho/Love - Francesca Chiejina, Eurymachus - Andrew Tortise, Eumaeus - Mark Milhofer, Irus - Stuart Jackson, Amphinomus - Nick Pritchard, Peisander - Tai Oney, Antinous/Time - David Shipley; Director - John Fulljames, Conductor - Christian Curnyn, Set designer - Hyemi Shin, Costume designer - Kimie Nakano, Lighting designer - Paule Constable, Sound design - Ian Deardon for Sound Intermedia, Movement director - Maxine Braham, Translator - Christopher Cowell, The Return of Ulysses Community Ensemble, Thurrock Community Chorus, Orchestra of the Early Opera Company.

Roundhouse, London; Wednesday 10th January, 2018.

[1] See Anthony Pryer’s ‘Approaching Monteverdi: his cultures and ours’, in The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi. The author/librettist has recently been identified as Michelangelo Torcigliani, friend of the librettist of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Giacomo Badoaro.

[2] Ellen Rosand, ‘Monteverdi’s late operas’, in Ibid.

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