Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Grange Festival, June 2017

As the applause swelled after this opening night of the new Grange Festival, musical director Michael Chance came on stage to thank everyone, singers and musicians included, quoting from Shakespeare’s Tempest that “Our revels now are ended”. It was a fitting end to an evening of excellent singing and musicianship that gave us Monteverdi’s late opera on the return of Odysseus (Ulysses) after a twenty years absence. The Phaeacians have transported him home, leaving him sound asleep on the coast of Ithaca where he thinks he has been betrayed and abandoned, but his trials are not yet over.

United at last, all images GrangeFestival/ Bob Workman

The libretto by Giacomo Badoaro does a rather effective job of condensing this story from the second half of the Odyssey (books 13 to 23), framing it in terms of performing roles for Human Frailty, Time and Fortune, but including major incidents such as Poseidon’s revenge on the Phaeacians as he turns their ship to stone. In the style of the time there are important roles for the gods: Poseidon (Neptune), Zeus (Jupiter) and Athena (Minerva), making a large cast of eighteen principal singers, each individually drawn by both librettist and composer.

The clear-toned Penelope of Anna Bonitatibus invested the queen with powerful melancholy before she finally expresses joy at the end of the opera as she recognises Odysseus (Ulysses) as her husband, in which role Paul Nilon exhibited a noble presence and a wily but firm countenance in his marvellously foreshortened disguise as the beggar. The other singers made an excellent team, including Thomas Elwin as a strong Telemachus, Emma Stannard a fine Athena (Minerva), and the excellent bass-baritone of Paul Whelan particularly notable in the multiple roles of Time, Neptune and the leading suitor Antinous.

Penelope and her challenge of the bow

A fine programme essay explains that although the gods may not be essential to the main thread of the story they were important for seventeenth century opera, creating ample opportunity for elaborate theatre. Indeed the theatrical side of this production by Tim Supple, with designs by Sumant Jayakrishnan, was very effective: the turning of the Phaeacian ship to stone, the abstractly-mimed fight between Irus and Odysseus as a beggar, the design of Penelope’s elaborate dress to keep men at bay, and the use of red paint by Athena to mark the death of the suitors. And I loved the surtitles being cleverly projected onto the sets themselves.

Telemachus not yet ready to accept the real Odysseus

When this was first staged in 1640 — three years after the opening of the first public opera house — the singers led the performance, based on Monteverdi’s specific rhythms and changes of pace and colour, adapting to the drama as it unfolds. Performed in similar manner here it makes for a fascinating and enjoyable evening — a superb start to the new Grange Festival.

Performances continue on various dates until July 2 — for details click here.

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