The Return of Ulysses, English National Opera, ENO, at the Young Vic, March 2011Posted on 25 March 2011
The return of Odysseus to Ithaca and his faithful wife, Penelope forms the end of the Odyssey, that magnificent epic by Homer. The Latinised version of Odysseus is Ulysses, and this opera by Monteverdi tells of Penelope’s anguish, the shenanigans of her suitors, and the unruly behaviour of some servants. Ulysses returns after twenty years away, looking like a beggar — a trick of the goddess — and his son Telemachus returns after a short sojourn abroad. Father and son recognise one another, and the rest of the story involves various incidents such as the fight with the local beggar, the contest of the bow, the killing of the suitors, and Penelope’s eventual recognition that this really is her long lost husband.
Hefty stuff for a two-act opera lasting under three hours, including an interval. But this music has muscularity coming up well from the bass, and was beautifully played by the thirteen musicians, under the direction of Jonathan Cohen. The singing was all good, and some of it was glorious, but what didn’t work so well for me was the production. The central glass cage, complete with living room, bedroom and bathroom for Penelope, was fine, but other things were a bit too fussy, and the two large screens showing close-ups were a bit much. Why not use them to show surtitles? That would have been very useful because the diction was variable, and it was hard to catch some of the words.
Some singers, however, had superb diction. Thomas Hobbes as Telemachus, making his ENO debut, was outstanding in this respect, but others were good too. Nigel Robson was excellent as Eumaeus the shepherd, Diana Montague was very clear as Ulysses’ old nurse Eurycleia, and Tom Randle was very good as Ulysses himself. The main character, Penelope was elegantly portrayed by Pamela Helen Stephen, singing beautifully, showing Penelope’s anguish and her charm with the suitors — it was a fine performance.
The production was by Benedict Andrews, one of several directors new to opera that the ENO has brought in. I approve of bringing in new ideas, but people who have made their names in theatre and film have done so for a reason, and do not always seem to see the sheer power of the music. They sometimes fill the staging with too many good ideas that distract from the main issue. Andrews is a well-known Australian theatre director who also works in Berlin, but I found this to be something of a Konzept production. For example, the goddess — well sung by Ruby Hughes — was dressed identically to Penelope, suggesting an abstract idea that they are different representations of the same soul. On the other hand there’s nothing abstract about having the maid Melanto pull her knickers off, showing stockings and suspenders, then lifting her skirt so that her lover can go down on her, but that was just one incident out of many. There were lots of ideas, food and drink being thrown to show the sorry state of the household, the nasty local beggar urinating on Ulysses — and there really was liquid splashing on him — and Ulysses meeting the goddess in the form of a small bald-headed puppet, which stayed around for the rest of the opera. Then towards the end, Ulysses took a shower in the bathroom, cleaning off the blood. Lots to see, and ponder over, but perhaps so much that it reduced the impact of the music and the singing.
Interesting, however, that the ENO are ready to do productions in smaller venues. The Royal Opera has the Linbury Studio, but there’s more atmosphere at the Young Vic.