The Return of Ulysses, Royal Opera, Roundhouse, January 2018

This new production, some might say semi-staging, by John Fulljames gives space to the singers but the theatricality that Monteverdi brought to his stage works has gone missing. The dull costumes fail to express the essence of the characters, and make little distinction between gods and mortals, but Paule Constable’s lighting is magical.

Ulysses and Minvera, all images ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey

The action takes place on a raised annular stage surrounding the instrumentalists. Rotating very slowly and bathed at first in a cool bluish glow, it contrasts with the yellow light from the orchestra and later livens up with other colours sometimes seen as circular bands within the annulus. There is no Phaeacian ship to turn to stone, hence no role for Neptune, but Odysseus’s (Ulysses’) slaying of the suitors is well staged with the bursting of balloons, brought on earlier by the shepherd, possibly representing his sheep.

Ulysses and Telemachus

Although the production fails to express the disguised nobility of Ulysses, particularly as he crawls round the stage towards the end, Roderick Williams fully brings out the subdued resilience of this wily Greek hero of the Trojan Wars, who arrives home twenty years after he left to reclaim his wife Penelope and meet the son he left behind, now grown to manhood. Williams was the star of the show, with Samuel Boden showing huge controlled energy and anger as his son Telemachus, the finest specimen of youthful masculinity to be seen on any stage. As Penelope herself, Christine Rice walked the role, but congratulations to Caitlin Hulcup, seated in the orchestra pit with a score, for a beautiful rendition of the vocal part, which she apparently prepared for over a weekend. Remarkable.


As Minerva (Athena), and Fortune in the Prologue, Catherine Carby’s voice pierced the gloom of the situation, and Susan Bickley gave a nuanced eloquence to the hero’s nurse Eurycleia as she tells Penelope of her husband’s old scar that she noticed on the stranger’s body. American soprano Francesca Chiejina was a delight as Melantho (and Love in the Prologue), servant to Penelope and supporter of the arrogant suitors, well represented by Nick Pritchard (counter-tenor), Tai Olney (tenor) and David Shipley as a firm and threatening bass, who also sang Time in the Prologue. A wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of Eumaeus the shepherd by Mark Milhofer, and as the greedy and brutish parasite, Irus, Stuart Jackson sang a notable lament towards the end.

Final scene

An outstanding performance by Roderick Williams as Ulysses, and beautifully produced music by Christian Curnyn directing the fourteen instrumentalists. No reason for several people near me to leave early, though they might have found the production insufficiently compelling.

Performances continue on most dates up to January 21 — for details click here.

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