Wednesday 30 September 2015

Poetic return for Ulysses at the Barbican

Cast of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, Academy of Ancient Music, at the Barbican (c) John McMunn
Directors & cast of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, Academy of Ancient Music, at the Barbican (c) John McMunn 
Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Ian Bostridge, Barbara Kozelj, Elizabeth Watts, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 30 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Musical values to the fore in this poetic account of Monteverdi's late masterpiece

The Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr (who directed from the harpsichord), completed their trilogy of Monteverdi operas, with Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria performed in a staging by Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson at the Barbican Hall on Tuesday 29 September 2015. Ian Bostridge was Ulisse, Barbara Kozelj was Penelope and Elizabeth Watts was Minerva, with Andrew Tortise, Lukas Jakobski, Sophie Junker, Daniela Lehner, Alexander Oliver, Christopher Gillett, Charmian Bedford, John Lattimore, Richard Latham and Gwilym Bowen. The opera was performed full staged, with performance areas both in front or the orchestra and on a raised one behind, and much use was made of the auditorium. Most of the cast wore black with just a hint of colour.

The performance was dedicated to the memory of the great critic Andrew Porter who died in April this year at the age of 86; and not just a critic, he translated 38 opera librettos including Wagner's Ring for ENO, as well as writing perceptively on a number of other subjects. Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Barbican, hosted a pre-concert reception for those who had known and loved Andrew and his work, including a number of his former colleagues. In his speech Nicholas Kenyon said that Andrew had written perceptively about Monteverdi's opera in the early years of his stint as the music critic of the New Yorker, and that Monteverdi's opera is so admired today is partly as a result of the changes in musical taste that Andrew brought about. Kenyon also said that he had been rather taken aback by the warm of the response when Andrew died, and that it was very much an end of an era.

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (which premiered in 1638/39) has a large cast (around 19 named roles plus three different choruses), and as such can often be the subject of cuts. The Academy of Ancient Music performed a pretty full version, with all of the scenes with the gods who are clearly in charge of the human destiny, though the role of Ericlea (Penelope's nurse) disappeared and the role of Eumete (played by Christopher Gillett) seemed to have been reduced. But the effect of all these characters is in fact to throw focus onto Penelope (Barbara Kozelj) and Ulisse (Ian Bostridge) and it is these two characters whom Monteverdi and his librettist, Giacomo Badoaro, develop the most. They are the only two characters in the piece who emerge as rounded characters rather than types. And it is their music which gives the opera its distinctive tint.

Neither role, Penelope nor Ulisse, is showy and both communicate in mainly recitative and arioso. Both, in their different ways, are stretched emotionally to the limit and the effect of the work is to highlight this expressive bleakness around which all the other characters caper and swirl. It was a testament to their artistry that, despite reservations I had about the staging and about the look of the characters, both Kozelj and Bostridge used their voices in a profoundly expressive manner and held our attention so vividly we hardly needed a staging at all.

Bostridge is a very distinctive and, dare I say, mannered performer of Monteverdi. He shapes the recitative in his own particular way, but there is no doubt that he is a very fine vocal actor indeed. So that, whilst he never looked the hero and used a range of body language which suggested extreme anguish but gave no sense of Ulisse's past as a warrior, vocally he created a thrillingly heroic sense of Ulisse's character. The role lies low in the tenor register (it is sometimes sung by high baritones), and Bostridge found a wonderfully centred vocal style for the work, very grounded. He made all the recitative, plain as it sometimes can be, very moving.

Barbara Kozelj was similarly grounded in her performance, giving us a lovely sense of Penelope's patience and the sense of being cut off and walled in by her emotions. But also, stretched thin, this was someone who might break. Kozelj had a beautifully calm demeanour, combined with a deep expressivity in the way she sang the Monteverdi.

When the two finally come together, at the end, for the love duet we did not get vocal fireworks, or bravura moments, all was subsumed into a deeply moving and profoundly satisfying duet. There was a great sense of coming together, with a clear rapport between the two artists and the conclusion to the opera was musical and poetic.

The prologue was vividly done, with L'Umana Fragilliata (Daniela Lehner) being set upon by Tempo (Lukas Jakobski), Fortuna (Sophie Junker) and Amore (Elizabeth Watts). But the problem with a concert staging is that we have little in the way of context for the scenes. It was difficult to get a sense of who these people were, and the various short scenes which popped up around Penelope and Ulisse came and went, with a puzzlingly tangential feel to the drama.

The opera works best if it is given a very secure dramatic setting (ENO's recent production at the Young Vic did this well, and I remember a previous ENO production directed by David Freeman at the London Coliseum in which Penelope spent virtually the entire opera weaving at the side of the stage). Directors Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson just did not give the audience enough clues as to what was happening. There was an element of colour coding, with the cast wearing different coloured scarves and such, but it wasn't clear quite what this meant. If you did not know the story, then quite who these people were was a puzzle. Especially as the Gods were not fully distinguished from the men. The result was a series of vivid vignettes, with some very strong performances which did not quite add up to a strong staging.

Elizabeth Watts' Minerva brought the strongest sense of character to the smaller roles, and it helped that Watts was on spectacular vocal form too so that there was a real sense of musical drama to her performance (and some very stylish Monteverdi singing).

Sophie Junker and Gwilym Bowen impressed as the lovers Melanto and Eurimaco, being minor characters their music is more lyrical and both took full advantage of this. It was never really clear how these two characters related to the central plot, you had to have read the libretto to know that she was Penelope's maid and he was a servant to the suitors. Bowen also impressed with his vivid portrayal of Giove especially his appearance from the circle spar with Lukas Jaokobski's black voiced Nettuno.

Neither Andrew Tortise (Telemaco) nor Christopher Gillett (Eumete) got chance to really develop their characters dramatically, but both were poised musically and complemented the main action finely. The three suitors Antinoo (Lukas Jakobski), Pisandro (John Latimore) and Richard Latham (Anfinomo) were brilliantly coloured in, in their short scene. There is just one really dramatic moment in the opera, when each trys and fails to string the bow only to be beaten by the beggar (Ulisse in disguise) who then shoot them, and this was superbly done, as all concerned brought the action vividly to life, watched by Barbara Kozelj's Penelope.

Alexander Oliver's comic moment as the glutton Iro now bereft of his food supply was rather over done. It is possible to play this for the tragi-comedy it is, making us laugh and feel sorry. You felt that someone should have made Oliver realise that less is more. Still, I have strong memories of Oliver's Monteverdi performances (notably as Arnalta in L'Incoronazione di Poppea) and he remains a stylish performer.

A number of the cast sang multiple roles, and all made each one count. John Lattimore and Richard Latham created the Coro di Feaci in the shipwreck scene, and Charmian Bedford was Giunone in the short scene on Olympus in Act Three, when most of the cast seemed to provide the heavenly chorus.

We don't know what orchestra Monteverdi used for the work, but it was written for a commercial theatre in Venice so was probably not lavish. Richard Egarr used a small compliment of strings led by Pavlo Besnoziuk, with two theorbos, two harpsichords and harp.

And it was the musical values which made this performance so satisfying. That it was staged, meant that we had the advantage of the performers being off the book but it was the way all performed Monteverdi's music with a coherent sense of style and continuing feel of drama that really counted.

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