Opera Atelier has brought back its 2007 production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses and applause is due to its co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg. The production is mostly well-sung, colourful, finely directed, and gorgeously danced as well as judiciously edited to keep the running time under three hours.
Librettist Giacomo Badoaro relied on a fairly conventional retelling of the second half of Homer’s Odyssey where the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus, to the purists), after many adventures, returns to Ithaca. He finds his kingdom in disarray with his wife being pursued by the local nobility who are eating him out of house and home, as they say.
Kevin Skelton (Jupiter) and Meghan Lindsay (Minerva).Photo: Bruce Zinger
We can assume that he will eventually get rid of the men who lust after his wife, reestablish his authority and find connubial bliss after a twenty year absence but with Neptune (bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus) and so much else against him, he has his work cut out.
Prologue, please. With the stars shimmering in the firmament in the background, we see the personification of Human Frailty (tenor Isaiah Bell), Time (impressive bass-baritone Douglas Williams who also plays the aggressive Antinoo, an early version of Trump), Fortune (soprano Carla Huhtanen who also does fine work as the treacherous servant Melanto), and Love (soprano Meghan Lindsay who is even better as Minerva). The latter three deride Human Frailty and claim that they control the fate of people who are weak in any event. Pynkoski directs the scene intelligently by having the taunters be quite active rather than singing with their feet screwed to the stage floor. A good start.
The opera proper begins on a high note with Penelope’s (splendidly sung by mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel) passionate recitative lamenting her husband’s long absence. The statuesque Lebel gives us an outpouring of emotions and display of strength that entitle her to be called The Temple of Chastity.
The scene moves from the palace with its grand columns to the sea where we see the wild waves painted in the background. From there (to do justice to the sets) we move to the countryside where we find the faithful shepherd Eumete (tenor Aaron Sheehan who sings well and don’t tell me he looks too young for the role this is a myth, not CNN). The goddess Minerva descends from the sky in grand style as does Kevin Skelton as Jupiter. The sets by Gerard Gauci are colourful and appealing and are strictly seventeenth century impressions of Ithaca, the gods and the sea with no attempt, quite rightly, to strive for representations of mythical Greece. Marvelous work by Gauci.
Pynkoski uses twelve singers for the twenty characters that appear in the opera and that is achieved by doubling the roles taken by many of the singers. Tenor Krešimir Špicer gives us a well-sung Ulysses. Pynkoski opts for a human and unheroic take of the opera and it serves us well. We appreciate Ulysses’ cunning and there are no heroics even in the stringing of his bow or his execution of the suitors. Lajeunesse-Zingg choreographs the scene so that it runs smoothly without any unnecessary heroics. Špicer’s Ulysses is a subtle and human hero and we are most happy about his return.
With a large cast, some unevenness in the singing is inevitable. Some could not project as well as we would have liked and other were not at their best. But they were the exception to an otherwise superb cast.
Lajeunesse-Zingg has as usual choreographed dance sequences for The Artists of the Atelier Ballet in which the dancers perform with grace, agility, lightness and sheer beauty.
Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design was uneven. She seems to like darkness and shadows but we want to see everything all the time. Penelope should not walk in and out of shadows.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is conducted by David Fallis. The only score of the opera is unhelpful as to orchestration and Fallis has opted for a small orchestra. We may be attuned to larger ensembles but some authenticity is appreciated.
Final assessment: an exquisite production.