Ulysses with his bow

Ulysses strings his bow, to the distress of the suitors. Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

Ulysses’ Homecoming

Malvern Theatres

*****

OF all Monteverdi’s stage works, we have to live with the fact that not only is much of the music lost, but he also composed relatively few complete operas anyway.

Indeed the span of this father of opera leaps almost at one tum from L’Orfeo, the work for the Mantua ducal palace with which the 39 year old composer (along with rivals like Peri and Caccini) virtually launched the genre in February 1607, to his dramatic masterpiece The Marriage of Poppea, produced at the Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice in 1643, the very year Monteverdi died.

But there were redeeming features. The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda, still survives from midway between those two works. And there is one other stagework that reveals to the full the composer’s astonishing talents.

Poppea is arguably equally significant for its superb librettist, Giovanni Francesco Busenello, who brings to it not only a more than sufficient command of the classics (Tacitus and others), but the particular fusion of passion and pathos, personal tragedy and hilarious comedy, which raise Monteverdi’s last work to the level of Shakespeare.

And it is a delight to be reminded that Giacomo BadoarUlysses in disguiseo, some 35 years younger than the composer, has much of this same gift. The pacing of the libretto, the way he copes with the long delayed recognition of Ulysses, and the interchanges he brings in with the disguised Minerva (Athene), the swineherd Eumaeus (a favourite scene from Homer’s Odyssey) and with Penelope, who resolutely refuses to recognise him.

Homecoming to Ithaca - Ulysses (Benedict Nelson) in disguise and the swineherd Eumaeus (John-Colyn Gyeantey)

James Conway’s production of Ulysses’ Homecoming (the terrific rhyming translation, which has lasted brilliantly, is by Anne Ridler), for his company English Touring Opera (they are also touring Cavalli’s La Calisto and Handel’s Xerxes) somehow managed to capture all the ingredients that make this opera such an undoubted masterpiece.

Crucial to the way he presents it is the design by Takis: together they have had the inspiration to conjure up the atmosphere mainly by a single visual effect: a series of wooden struts at stage right which suggest, first, the struts of a ship: Odysseus’s vessel bringing him home after ten years’ wandering; and secondly, an array of massive bows waiting to be strung (and when the suitors struggle to draw them, the cord is an ominous scarlet red: death is in the air).

Conway begins by using a set of six doors, three above three, arrayed like a kind of elaborate cupboard at stage left. As with Poppea, Monteverdi starts with a morality tale told by three divine characters: there, it is Love, Fortune and Virtue; here, Virtue is replaced by Human Frailty, the last of whom, sung by alto Clint van der Linde, is a pathetic and abandoned creature, a point artfully made by effectively imprisoning him within the boat/bows, seemingly bereft of all hope, while Love (the splendid soprano Martha Jones, especially characterful when doubling the role of Penelope’s flighty and in reality disloyal maid Melanto) and Fortune (Andrew Slater, a marvellously reliable stalwart of ETO) appear above, smug and self-satisfied.

Ten years on from Troy, Penelope is still besieged by a cluster of would-be suitors, represented here by three main protagonists: Antinous, the most cynical and demanding of those in Homer’s original, and sung again by Slater; Eurymachus (the forceful Robert Anthony Gardiner), a suitably sly character who finds time to dally with the maid; and Pisander, another alto role for van der Linde.

Their challenges to Penelope to lay aside her determination to remain loyal to Ulysses produced several effectively staged scenes, though even more penelope and Ulyssesmemorable were the bizarre antics of the strange character Irus (Adam Player), their ‘minion’ and here a kind of laughable eunuch, who waddles around the stage thoroughly entertainingly and gradually earns our sympathy, or partially so. There is a hint of Poppea in this hapless, much-mocked Irus

Badoaro has the sense to provide a substantial role for Eumaeus, the loyal retainer to whom Ulysses in Homer goes first, and who aids him in his stage-by-stage return to the royal palace.

Reunited at last - Penelope (Carolyn Dobbin) and Ulysses (Benedict Nelson)

So humble and utterly dependable is this swineherd that one almost expects Ulysses to return to the palace clinging under a large pig or sow, in a replay of the escape from Polyphemus.

But instead he dresses himself up in the disguise of a wandering vagabond, looking here like a dead ringer for Alexander Selkirk/Robinson Crusoe. The fact that he has to wander the stage in these ignoble rags lead to the suitors’ ridicule, but Penelope stands up for him, following Eumaeus’ observation ‘Beggars are favoured by the mighty in heaven as Jove’s beloved.’ In the palace, crouched by the bows, and looking insignificant were it not for the splendid dramatic irony, he await his moment.

Conway’s casting was a notable success. Not only with the doublings or even treblings: hence Slater plays a third role, as Neptune, thoroughly resentful and grumpy and each time to commanding effect; and van der Linde has another task, that of depicting Ericlea, the old nurse, arguably a role Badoaro’s libretto fails to use to best effect: along the lines of Poppea’s nurse Arnalta, she deserves a more weighty role, more akin to Eumaeus, and a couple of proper solos: even her recognition of Ulysses seemed a little sub-fusc here.

Telemachus (Nick Pritchard) is magicked back from Sparta by Minerva, and encountering his father at the swineherd’s hut, is brought into the plot. Again, Badoaro gives the son not a huge amount to do apart from act as his father’s stooge, and so it was here. Martha Jones’s finely sung Melanto had that mixture of shrewdness and cheek that go with, for instance, Poppea’s maid (Damigella). But the most desirable of all was Katie Bray, who first as the chirpy (supposed) young lad and then transformed into the goddess Minerva has the most elaborate coloratura of them all, which she delivered gorgeously, and, staying with Ulysses to the end, proves that having just one deity on your side is sufficient to ensure things turn out well.

But the vocals were pleasing throughout – with Carolyn Dobbin catching the poignancy and endless patience of Penelope – to whom the libretto does give ample stretches of soliloquy – and Benedict Nelson absolutely first class as Ulysses. Rags he may have donned, but there was nothing ragged about the voice: beautifully expressive and with a real individual quality that shone through every utterance. Meanwhile conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny made of Monteverdi’s score the wonderfully electrifying experience that it should be, rich in every detail, bouncing with life and positively dancing from scene to scene: his harpist, two archlutes and keyboard worked wonders with the vital and energised recitative, of which there is a huge amount, and the remaining strings brought an enviable perfection, of the kind one has long associated with ETO’s Early Music performances.

Roderic Dunnett

20-10-16

Tour dates: Fri 28 Oct Harrogate Theatre; Wed 2 Nov Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden; Tues 8 Nov New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth; Fri 11 Nov Snape Maltings Concert Hall; Tues 15 Nov Gala Theatre, Durham; Fri 18 Nov Buxton Opera House; Thu 24 Nov Northcott Theatre, Exeter 

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