Monday 26 June 2017

Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at the Grange Festival

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Anna Bonitatibus, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Anna Bonitatibus, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Monteverdi Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Anna Bonitatibus, Paul Nilon, Thomas Elwin, Robin Blaze, Paul Whelan, Nigel Robson, Fiona Kimm, Harry Nicholl, dir: Tim Supple; the Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 24 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Strong performances from the two leads at the centre of this vibrantly theatrical account of Monteverdi's late opera

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Thomas Elwin, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Thomas Elwin, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Tim Supple's new production of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at The Grange Festival made full use of the intimacy of the theatre's auditorium. A small group of instrumentalists from the Academy of Ancient Music used only half the pit, and the stage was brought forward enabling strong communication between singers and the continuo group. The cast was a mixture of youth and experience, with Anna Bonitatibus as Penelope, Paul Nilon as Ulisse, Thomas Elwin as Telemaco plus an ensemble of singers taking multiple roles, Robin Blaze, Paul Whelan, Donna Bateman, Lorena Paz Nieto, Gwilym Bowen, Emma Stannard, Fiona Kimm, Nigel Robson, Ronald Samm, Harry Nicoll, and Michael Rakotoarivony, and three actors Ludo Helin, Rachel Ni Bhraonain and Durassie Kiangangu. Designs were by Sumant Jayakrishnan, movement by Debbie Fionn Barr, lighting by Jackie Shemesh and video by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn.

Jayakrishnan's set was a simple array of moveable screens on which Jacobs-Wyburn video appeared, this was restricted mainly to colour and to words with a summary of the English translation of the Italian projected in a way which was informative and decorative. This is opera at its most recitative, and words were the centre of the visual stimulus. This had the advantage that there was no annoying head nodding to take in surtitles and singer.

Within this the costumes were vivid and varied. Jayakrishnan used modern references for the Gods, so that Jove was a fireman (on a hoist, this was a production which used theatrical elements theatrically, and quite rightly the stage crew took a bow at the end), and Pluto a deep sea diver. But the costumes for the humans were more simply modern. The exception was Penelope, who wore a series of remarkable outfits which, I began to realise, had the intention of veiling her face in public thought it was unfortunate that one outfit made her look like a giant fringed lamp shade.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Robin Blaze, Anna Bonitatibus, Harry Nicoll (photo Robert Workman)
Robin Blaze, Anna Bonitatibus, Harry Nicoll (photo Robert Workman)
The opera opened with three white-coated figures, Paul Whelan, Donna Bateman, Lorena Paz Nieto (Tempo, Fortuna, Amore) drawing a dinner suited figure from the audience, Robin Blaze (L'umana fragilita) and making him strip down to his boxer shorts and put on a hospital gown. As each of the three figures introduced themselves, there was a visualisation so that Tempo was always accompanied by Ludo Helin as a fearsome figure on stilts, Fortuna by Rachel Ni Bhraonain as an insouciant young girl on a bicycle and Amore by a red clad and blindfolded Durassie Kiangangu on sprung stilts. These three visualisations would reappear throughout the opera, guiding and controlling with Durassie Kiangangu's Amore being particularly omnipresent. Both Durassie Kiangangu and Ludo Helin made their stilts and sprung stilts so much part of themselves in a remarkable way.

Opera underwent a remarkable transformation in the period between Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and his three final operas. The first, written for aristocratic court, was serious, with moral and didactic intent and a large instrumental ensemble. The latter three mix serious and comedic, they were designed to entertain, and use visual spectacle too (there are lots of transformations), yet with a small instrumental ensemble. It is possible to play Il ritorno d'Ulisse al patria in a variety of ways, and recent productions have tended to move towards the serious, placing Penelope and Ulisse at the centre. Tim Supple opted to go for a more varied approach, so that both Anna Bonitatibus and Paul Nilon as able to create serious and intent characters, but around them were a welter of characterisations from the comic to the serious, with the production's huge visual flair coming into play. This was a very visually inventive and stimulating production (the remarkable archery scene with Anna Bonitatibus's Penelope as part of the bow, and the whole ensemble involved in the pulling), yet one which never minimised the serious story at its centre.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Emma Stannard (photo Robert Workman)
Emma Stannard (photo Robert Workman)
A feature of the casting was the the older characters were played by older singers. Fiona Kimm made a strong Ericlea, her agony of indecision at the end being a very telling scene, Nigel Robson was a very human and believable Eumete, whilst Harry Nicoll made the suitor Anfinomo older and more interesting than usual. This helped so that the three suitors were very contrasted, with Paul Whelan's morally upright Antinoo and Robin Blaze's very English Pisandro. Having experienced singers like Whelan and Blaze in multiple roles brought real vibrancy to the sung arioso-like recitative. Things really flowed.

A slight drawback was that it seemed that the singers could not always hear the continuo ensemble well, tuning was occasionally an issue though not disastrously so. Both Anna Bonitatibus and Thomas Elwin both strayed somewhat, without ever damaging the intensity of their characterisation. Slightly more worrying was Nigel Robson as Eumete, but we came to accept that an element of vocal fragility was part of the character, this old retainer had been waiting a long time for the return of his master.

Anna Bonitatibus made a dignified yet intense Penelope, fiercely controlled and determined yet when the real Ulisse does appear, reluctant to trust. Having an Italian speaker singing the fluid recitative was a real bonus. Paul Nilon depicted Ulisse's emotional journey with acuity, a solider adrift in complex waters. Nilon brought a very human quality to Ulisse's music, and his physical transformation when he was a beggar was quite remarkable. The final scene shows Monteverdi at his most acute, there is no huge love duet such as the one which concludes L'incoronazione di Poppea, instead something simpler, more touching and profoundly poignant.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Anna Bonitatibus, Harry Nicoll (photo Robert Workman)
Anna Bonitatibus, Harry Nicoll (photo Robert Workman)
Thomas Elwin's Telemaco was very much the soldier, stiff at times and serious, struggling with events beyond his ken. The architect of much of the action is of course the goddess Minerva, delightfully incarnated here by Emma Stannard with a great deal of charm, and a wry delight at meddling with human affairs.

Monteverdi excels at giving minor characters their moment in the spotlight, illuminating them in intriguing ways (who can forget Poppea's Nurse's wonderful triumphing song at the end of that opera). What was appealing about this production was the way that the different soloists each seized their moment, but giving Monteverdi's music in a deeply personal yet idiomatic way.

The comic character Iro is a glutton who is happy to be indulged as a result of the way the suitors rampage through Penelope's court, and he receives a final solo in which comedy and tragedy meet. He is devastated that his hunger will no longer be satisfied. Ronald Samm, a tenor best known for his dramatic roles (including being the first black tenor to sing Verdi's Otello) brought a brilliant sense of comedy and tragedy to Iro's solo, giving Monteverdi's arioso a wonderful vibrancy.

Gwilym Bowen showed his versatility by doubling as a dramatic Giove and the charming servant Eurimaco. This latter indulging in a bit of flirtation and more with Penelope's charming attendant Melanto (Donna Bateman, who also doubled as Fortuna).

This was very much an ensemble opera. The various transformations to Ulisse were done on stage, and everyone was involved in the bit scenes, so that in one scene singers not involved in the action returned as clouds which eventually hid Ulisse from our view. Supple filled the stage with action, but new when to calm things down. The climax was, of course, the archery scene where Supple and movement director Debbie Fionn Barr really created something virtuoso which complemented the music.

Strong support and partnership was provided by the continuo group, Paula Chateaneuf (chitarrone / baroque guitar), Robert Howarth (harpsichord), Frances Kelly (harp), Giulia Nuti (harpsichord / organ), this was very much a joint enterprise between singers and performers. Led by Pavlo Beznosiuk, the small orchestral ensemble (Julia Bishop, Martin Kelly, Rachel Stott, Emilia Benjamin, Richard Tunnicliffe) really made Monteverdi's ritornellos sing. Having the two groups at either end of the pit, with the stage extension in between, meant that there were a couple of moments of tricky ensemble. Next time the festival stages a Monteverdi opera (and I certainly hope there is a next time), perhaps they should experiment with covering the pit completely and having the instruments on stage with the singers.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - (photo Robert Workman)
Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - (photo Robert Workman)
This was a real ensemble piece where singers, actors and musicians all joined together to create something striking. Strongly individual performances, with some very characterful voices, all merged into an engaging whole, which filled the Grange auditorium with vibrant life yet kept the relationship of Penelope and Ulisse at its still, strong centre.

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