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Improvisation of Genius: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

18 June 2017

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

by Claudio Monteverdi, libretto Giacomo Badoaro

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 2nd July

Review by Mark Aspen

The Modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy says in his poem, Ithaca,  “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage,  Without her you would never have taken the road…”

Odysseus’ road to home may have been two decades long, but certainly the most touching human episode described by Homer in The Odyssey is his homecoming and his reuniting with his wife Penelope.  Ulisse’s (Odysseus’) landfall on a deserted Ithacan beach is the starting point for Monteverdi’s majestic opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.

Claudio Monteverdi, maestro di capella at St Mark’s Venice, was 74 years old when he composed this remarkable work.  That was in 1641, four years after opening of Teatro San Cassiano, regarded as the first opera house.   Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria has been described as “an improvisation of genius, a vast sketch in which certain parts have been worked out, and others scarcely outlined”.  2017 marks the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, and the Grange Festival’s production is a fitting celebration of this “improvisation of genius”.

The journey to Cavafy’s Ithaca “… is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge”.  Homer certainly ascribes a series of human weaknesses to Odysseus’ protracted return journey, a point that Monteverdi, and his librettist Badoaro, clearly remind us in the Prologue to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, in which L’umana fragilità (Human Frailty) is mocked by Tempo, Fortuna and Amore (the gods of Time, Fortune and Love).  Man is slave to their every whim.  

In this production, L’umana fragilità is (ostensibly) a hapless member of the audience, a latecomer, who is pulled onto the stage to be stripped of his dinner suit and subjected to all sorts of indignities.  The vocal tormenting by Tempo, Fortuna and Amore comes from three singers (Paul Whelan, Donna Bateman and Lorneza Paz Nieto), whereas their “physicalisations” are by a stilt-walking grim reaper, a pretty young girl riding a bicycle, and a blindfolded cupid mounted on sprung powerbocks.  These gods remind us that every human is assaulted by Time, is Fortune’s toy, and that Love is a god that even hurts gods.  Countertenor, Robin Blaze, creates a picture of L’umana fragilità helpless against the ravages of these forces of life and, when he is exposed spread-eagled on circular table, an analysed and proportioned human, referencing Leonardo da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano, we feel his plaintive cry “misero sono mio!”.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

This outré setting characterises a presentation of imaginative invention.  And so the quirky gods continue with Nettuno (Neptune) jetting up through a stage-trap in a wetsuit with flak-jacket, harpoon gun and oversize harpoons, all jet-black; whereas Giove (Jupiter) is a rigger from an industrial plant, atop an hydraulic “cherry-picker” platform and carrying an angle-grinder (which subsumes the role of thunder-bolt).  Minerva first appears disguised as a shepherd boy, gathering a flock of sheep made from bicycle saddles and coiled springs all painted white.  When she resumes her own identity, it is as the Owl of Minerva with blue silky wings and huge myopic spectacles.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

The fertile mind of designer Sumant Jayakrishnan, together with Jackie Shemesh and Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn, his lighting and video co-designers, has provided a fine foil for the controlled clarity of Monteverdi’s music.   With a bare revolve stage and strong colours as the base, lighting and video are back-projected onto translucent panels, which are reassembled for the different settings and onto which the surtitles appear in a typeface that varies between characters.  Ulisse and Telemaco wear battle-stained twenty-first century combat fatigues and inspired designs also extend to Penelope’s costumes. Penelope is wrapped in a white girdle by Melanto, her lady-in-waiting, a wide and endlessly long tape that could be a swaddling band or could be a chastity belt.  In either case it is unwrapped by Ulisse in the final scene.  However, to meet the suitors, Penelope wears a magnificently sculptured pannier dress, almost like her personal castle walls surrounding her.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

Director, Tim Supple, former artistic director of the Young Vic, has a wide-ranging vision for this opera that encompasses all this idiosyncratic symbolism, and more.  Although this blend of post-modernistic design and early Baroque music could seem self-indulgent, it works brilliantly … and largely (and maybe surprisingly) unobtrusively.

Michael Chance, The Grange Festival’s artistic director, is himself an opera singer (probably a unique situation in Britain) and indeed is internationally renowned as a foremost counter-tenor.  One feels that The Grange Festival’s production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is Chance’s brainchild, and he has personally adopted the role of musical director.   The opera is in good hands, for Chance clearly understands Monteverdi, with its fluid and lively scoring, its descriptive purity and its emotional intensity.  Chance, lucky man, gets two groups of musicians, two sets of instruments for the Baroque period, each with its own pit.  One is The Division Lobby, of plucked instruments, which provides the continuo.    The other is The Academy of Ancient Music Resident Orchestra, which plays the ritornello on bowed instruments.

However, as Chance himself says, “Strip away the non-essentials of opera and what are you left with?  Singing.  Singing is the core of opera …”.  Nevertheless, to bring the characters to life requires good acting as well as good singing, and in this production the cast excels in both aspects.

Ulisse 3

As Ulisse, Paul Nilon portrays a man who is heroic but astute, noble but patient, the man to be shipwrecked with if you wish to survive.  His strong lyrical tenor voice encapsulates Ulisse’s anguish at being at his goal, but not quite.   (And how can he hold that bent pose for so long in his disguise as the decrepit down-and-out?)   Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus is outstanding as a regal, resolute and contained Penelope, her fine voice interpreting the baroque score with an expressive simplicity.  Her opening, “di misera regina” captures the emotion of the piece in a moving and dignified manner.  The final duet when the torments of Ulisse and Penelope have ceased and the reunion is complete, “O delle mie fatiche meta dolce e soave”, the sweet and gentle ending, was extremely touching.

The clean tenor voice of Thomas Elwin brings a vigour and a vibrancy to Telemaco, the son of Ulisse and Penelope, and the emotion journey from doubt to acceptance of his long-lost father is very convincing.  Telemaco’s ill-judged praise to the beauty of Helen, the cause of all their woes, is itself beautifully rendered by Elwin.

One of most sympathetic characters is that of Eumente, the elderly swineherd and faithful retainer at Ulisse’s household, and this part is acted with great poignancy by established tenor Nigel Robson, who sings with a resonance that allows the emotions in the character to show through. Equally Fiona Kimm bringst to life Penelope’s elderly nurse, the knowing and wise Ericlea, with her mature mezzo singing.  Soprano Donna Bateman is a flirtatious Melanto, who suggests to Penelope that no one loses the game of love and that she should yield to the suitors.

Monteverdi, for the purposes of the opera, reduces the number of Homer’s a whole generation of suitors to a more economical three, but these are widely drawn and from across the full male register: Pisandro (baroque countertenor Robin Blaze), Anfinomo (character tenor Harry Nicoll) and Antinoo (bass Paul Whelan).  Vibrant in solo, they are vivid in trio, creating a richly multi-layered sound, as in “Compagni, udiste?” (Friends, do you hear?).

 

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

The suitors have been predatory with Penelope, the palace and the patrimony of Ulisse.   When they hear that Telemaco has returned with a beggar in tow, they plan to kill him, and they up the ante with Penelope, offering titles, gold and power.  Penelope’s challenge to them to show that they are as good as Ulisse by drawing his archer’s bow gives them hope, but none can succeed.  In this production, the competition involves passing the bowstring around Penelope.  The movement choreography, by Debbie Fionn Barr, in this sequence was visually very pleasing (as it was generally) and true to the score.  Clearly she is meant to be a “tug-of-love” woman, but is this stretching the visual pun a bit too far?  (Excuse the verbal pun.)  With the help of Minerva, all three suitors fail in their quest, but when the beggar, the disguised Ulisse, asks to try and then succeeds, this is the cue for the suitors’ massacre.   The dramatic tension at this point is as tight as Ulisse’s bowstring, and it is an accolade to the acting that a lady, one of the staid members of the Grange audience, sitting behind your reviewer, involuntarily let out, through clenched teeth, an audible “Yesss!”.

As the ubiquitous Minerva, the wise owl goddess, mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard gives a charming and animated performance.  The other principal god, Nettuno, he of the black wetsuit and harpoons, is the very imposing and impressive figure of the tall bass singer, Paul Whelan.  Whelan also plays Tempo and Antinoo, the suitor, and is able to extend easily into the baritone range without losing any of the rich fullness of his voice.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria - Claudio Monteverdi - The Grange Festival - 7th June 2017

Musical Director - Michael Chance
Director - Tim Supple
Designer - Sumant Jayakrishnan
Movement Director - Debbie Fionn Barr
Lighting Designer - Jackie Shemesh
Vid

Another memorable performance was that of Ronald Samm as the parasitic slob Iro, the glutton and drunken hanger-on with the suitors.  His voice is superb and rounded, and he has imposing stage presence.   The solo, “O dolor, o martir che l’alma attrista”, sung after the demise of the suitors, when he decides to kill himself as he can no longer indulge his gluttony (O grief, O torment that saddens the soul) is pure bathos, but one cannot help but feel sympathy.

Such is the contrary nature of the Grange Festival’s production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.   Remarkable, quirky, intellectually stimulating and beautiful, it takes us from Homer’s “wine-dark seas” to Ithaca and on to Monteverdi’s “improvisation of genius”.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photography by Bob Workman

 

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From → Opera, Reviews

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