Ulysses’ Homecoming, English Touring Opera, ETO, Hackney Empire, October 2016Posted on 16 October 2016
The text for this 1640 opera was written specially to attract the 73-year old Monteverdi to Venice, where opera had gone public for the first time just three years earlier. It is a remarkable work based on the second half of Homer’s Odyssey, starting with the Phaecians taking the hero back to Ithaca after 20 years away, ten fighting the Trojan War, and ten on a homeward journey where he lost all his companions and finally abandoned the nymph Calypso. His son Telemachus is fully grown, his wife Penelope has abandoned all hope while rejecting numerous suitors, and after a brief prologue involving Time, Fortune and Love, the opera begins with her, and ends by uniting her and her lost husband Odysseus (aka Ulysses) in the final moments.
James Conway’s production uses minimal sets and props, the line of bows we see at the start representing the Phaecian ship, with one ready for later use at the turning point where Ulysses and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. Yet in this well-constructed libretto by Giacomo Badoaro, Penelope is hugely resistant to acknowledging Ulysses as the beggar she has welcomed to her household, despite his demonstrated superiority over the suitors by an ability to string the bow; and the final recognition scene is theatrically convincing, helped by Conway’s simple staging, beautifully lit by Mark Howland.
Fine musical direction of the baroque orchestra by Jonathan Peter Kenny, excellent diction from the singers — in English translation — and very effective placement of the characters on stage. Carolyn Dobbin as Penelope sang with consistent vocal clarity and purity of tone, her queenly demeanour exhibiting a range of well-controlled emotions culminating in the gentle acceptance of her erstwhile husband, powerfully portrayed and lyrically sung by Benedict Nelson. As Telemachus, Nick Pritchard revealed fearless nobility, singing with strength and stamina, and Katie Bray showed a firm vocal cutting-edge as the goddess Athena (aka Minerva), who brings together father and son to assert justice. With a dramatically engaging performance by John-Colyn Gyeantey as Eumaeus the shepherd, a sassy and nicely embellished portrayal by Martha Jones as Melanto, servant of Penelope and lover of one of the suitors, this was a vocally rewarding performance, with further multiple roles including a fine counter-tenor from Clint van der Linde as Ulysses’ old nurse Ericlea.
A fine opportunity to see Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, which along with L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of Monteverdi’s final two masterpieces.
Performances continue on tour at Malvern Theatres, 20th Oct; Harrogate Theatre, 28th Oct; Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden,2nd Nov; New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, 8th Nov; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 11th Nov; Gala Theatre, Durham, 15th Nov; Buxton Opera House, 18th Nov; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 24th, 26th Nov.