The Royal Opera and Roundhouse have teamed up for an intriguing production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It is done at the Roundhouse and the shape of the theatre sets the tone, indeed shapes the entire production.
As its name indicates, The Roundhouse is a theatre in the round. The stage for The Return resembles a donut with the orchestra being placed in the hole. The action takes place on the perimeter of the donut of course as the singers make use of all the available space in the circle. The opera is sung in English and surtitles are displayed above the playing area.
The donut for the The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse.
The use of a circular playing area provides for considerable mobility in an opera that can be quite static. With the orchestra being in the middle, it has a close relationship with the audience and provides a more intimate feel. There are no sets or props, of course, but the immediacy of the action makes up for that.
Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro uses a conventional retelling of the return of Ulysses as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Monteverdi included personifications of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune, Love and Minerva but their appearance in this production is mercifully short while a number of other deities have been deleted.
Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was scheduled to sing Penelope but she lost her voice several days before opening night and the role was sung by Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup. Rice walked the role and Hulcup sang from the orchestra pit. The arrangement worked quite well partly because of the position of the orchestra. Hulcup appeared relaxed and she sang beautifully. She has some luscious low notes and a splendid midrange to deliver a fine Penelope if only vocally.
The cast of a dozen singers and a large chorus perform quite well but there is some unevenness in the singing. Baritone Roderick Williams sings the heroic if initially abused Ulysses who can only reveal himself in the last scenes as the powerful warrior and loving husband of Penelope.
Ulysses and Minvera, Photo ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey
The youthful tenor Samuel Boden arrives on a bicycle built for two to sing the role of Telemachus. He has a delicate voice and made a fine son of our hero.
Mezzo Catherine Carby with a gold breastplate to inform us that she is the goddess of war Minerva exerts power – vocal and physical - and helps Telemachus. You can’t miss her.
As we all know, Penelope was besieged by a herd of suitors who wanted to replace the long-missing king. Monteverdi gives three samples of them: Tenor Nick Pritchard as Amphinomus, countertenor Tai Oney as Peisander and bass Davis Shipley as Antinous. The three baddies cover the main voice ranges and they all get their comeuppance. Monteverdi also adds Irus, a parasite, who has balloons stuffed under his clothes and looks like the Goodyear blimp. He is sung and acted well by tenor Stuart Jackson.
Ulysses has faithful servants such as the elderly and faithful Eurycleia (mezzo Susan Bickley), Eurymachus (tenor Andrew Tortise), the shepherd Eumaeus (tenor Mark Milhofer) and Melantho (soprano Francesca Chiejina). Except for the latter who plots to get one of the suiters, the rest are sympathetic figures.
The Orchestra of Early Opera Company conducted by Christian Curnym played with exemplary fluidity the music of Monteverdi.
Director John Fulljames had his hands full trying to organize and direct movement around a moving circle. There was a certain fluidity to the movement of the singers but there were times when some entrances and exits were not clear. Still Fulljames deserves credit for doing well in a tough situation.
The costunes by Kimie Nakano were a grab-bag of clothes that seemed to belong to no era that I could recognize. The women wore mostly black skirts. The servants wore servant’s uniforms and the men struck me as wearing whatever they showed up in for the performance.
The translation by Christopher Cowell worked reasonably well with the usual limitation of trying to sing in English a libretto that was written in Italian.
In any event, this Return had mostly positive features and many unique ones that made for a very fine night at the opera.