Thursday 7 April 2011

The Return of Ulysses

To the Young Vic on Wednesday night for Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses performed by ENO in its annual visit to the small scale theatre. All of the ENO's previous visits had involved a contemporary element to the work, last year we had Henze and the year before was Katie Mitchell's radical re-working of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with Birtwistle's Punch and Judy the year before that. So it was heartening that the company decided to move to fully baroque music, but the way that the audience dwindled alarmingly after the interval seemed to suggest that many opera goers were conditioned to think of the ENO/Young Vic collaborations as contemporary and that Benedict Andrews' take on Monteverdi just did not hold their attention.

To a certain extent I can understand why. Even if you manage to survive the extremely uncomfortable seats, Andrews' production was a very theatrical event which at times seemed to overlay Monteverdi with extra layers, including pauses, so that Monteverdi's distinctive combination of words and music ceased to be paramount. In fact, I rather found both acts had occasional longeurs, surprising since the singers were apparently reasonably fluent in Monteverdi's style, though the technical detail was a little approximate.

But Andrews did rather throw the kitchen sink at the piece. It all took place in a modern glass house at whose walls people threw an awful lot. When action took place outside, we could still see Pamela Helen Stephen's Penelope, Diana Montague's Ericlea inside with Penelope spending much of her time moping and Ericlea doing ordinary things like tidying up and making Penelope's lunch. See, Andrews did throw the kitchen sink at the piece, complete with tap with running water. This wasn't the only running water, the shower worked as well. After he had killed the suitors, Tom Randle's Ulisse sat pondering and contemplating suicide, then decided not; to show us how he was washing the past away he took a shower (bravely stripping off completely). Of course he then had to quickly get dry (including all those awkward bits) and get dressed in time for the final duet. Luckily no-one tried using the toilet!

The suitors kept appearing and ogling Penelope through the glass and by act 2, it seemed that everyone was on stage all the time, either inside or outside. Brian Galliford's Iro wore a mask for most of the time and lurked around the house for the entire act 2, sponging away.

More problematically, Ruby Hughes's Minerva was attired exactly like Penelope and in act 2 seemed to spend as much time in the house as Penelope, even allowing the suitors to grope her etc. This, like one or two other aspects of the production, rather confused me and I felt that if you did not know the opera, you would have wondered quite what was going on.

When Tom Randle's Ulisse came to take his revenge on the suitors, the result was suitably bloody, completing the devastation.

As if this wasn't enough, there were two large video screens, one on each side of the acting area. The action was videoed and we had the live action accompanied by video montages of it, including moments not properly visible from the auditorium.

Andrews seemed determined to underplay the comedy. At one point in a scene between Melanto (Katherine Manley) and Eurimaco (Thomas Walker), Melanto tells Eurimaco to keep on talking, in fact talking was not what he was doing; I did wonder whether Andrews wanted us to pick up the pun of Eurimaco being a cunning linguist. Then Brian Galliford's Iro seemed to lack the comic pathos in his final scene which singers like Alexander Oliver brought to the role.

The band under Jonathan Cohen were impressive and seemed to mix modern and old instruments rather successfully and with some style.

This was a notable attempt at Monteverdi's opera, with some strong dramatic performances, but somewhere along the way, something of Monteverdi's vitality of line was lost to be replaced by a more generic dramatic bluster. Its a rather old fashioned thing to say, but I can't help wondering if it would have been better for the performance if the conductor had been the strongest personality; if instead of Jonathan Cohen (talented, making his ENO debut), they had engaged one of the finest Monteverdian's in the business. Then we might have seen a little more primacy of music and dramatic musical line.

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