Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 28 March 2011 4 stars

The Return of Ulysses at EnoPerhaps I should clarify right at the start that this was my first encounter with Monteverdi's Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, whether in the original or vernacular language. The music is immediate and gripping. Although Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) – the first baroque opera to gain a permanent place in the repertory – would influence later developments in the genre, the mature composer arguably surpassed Orfeo with his Ulisse (1640). 

Three components have made this joint production by English National Opera and the Young Vic remarkable: Monteverdi's music, Jonathan Cohen's musical direction and the ensemble work on stage. Cohen clearly knows every ounce of the score in depth and he lives the music while he superbly directs his forces. There are no histrionic devices; communication with singers and orchestra is governed by knowledge and respect for text and music. Notwithstanding the contradiction in terms, I would describe Jonathan Cohen as a humble star.

Stage director Benedict Andrews has created extraordinary theatre. His singers don't keep going on and off stage: more often than not, they stay on stage – regardless of whether they should be there according to the libretto – and interact with the story line. This must be an exhausting experience for the singers but they become true parts of the whole rather than just playing their roles.

On the other hand, Andrews used many devices which seemed to have little, if anything, to do with the matter in hand. Call me a prude, but I see no justification for near-pornographic images in the Prologue. Human Frailty is led in by Time, Fortune and Love with a chain around his neck and is in due course led out on all four. He wears a latex mask over his face, he gets hooded over his head and is forced to lie on his back while, I hasten to add, he (counter-tenor Iestyn Morris) sings Monteverdi's beautiful melodic lines exquisitely. The over-the-top sexual images continue during the duet between Melanto and her lover Eurimaco, yet the music to which I was listening did not match the images presented with it. Flirting is fine when the text so requires, but assuming that audiences do not know about the nature of sexual encounters and, more importantly, overriding the music seems to me bordering on ignorance or arrogance.   

There are some devices which I genuinely do not understand. For instance, why is Iro, the socialite parasite living off rich people, wearing a somewhat frightening face masque during most of the opera?  And do we really need to see constant video images of the suffering heroine Penelope while the other characters deliver their arias? While the multi-layered staging contributes to exceptional theatre, it is also over-fussy and somewhat distracting at times. The production is staged in two parts with one interval. The second half is either less fussy or one gets used to Andrews' concept by then. I could not help feeling somewhat irritated by the cluttered activities in the first part, but I was able to enjoy the whole experience during the second part.      

Set designer Börkur Jónsson's revolving boxed glass house appears to be a brilliant device. It allows simultaneous actions in the house as well as at various sides of it. But the constant video images – on two screens in each side of the stage – could arguably be regarded as overkill. As the text is important, I would have welcomed surtitles on one (or both) of the screens. It is true that the Young Vic theatre is small (with a maximum capacity of 500) and intimate, and the singers delivered their words with excellent diction. But, inevitably, some words got lost in Monteverdi's florid passages when constant clarity would have been helpful. (From what I heard from members of the audience, most of us were new to this opera.)

The quality of singing was of a high standard throughout. The twelve singers (some of them appearing in more than one role) varied in vocal attributes but their musical delivery was united by assurance, intelligence and dedication. One wonders if conductor Jonathan Cohen had more to do with his singers than is usual in opera houses (where coaching is done primarily by others than conductors). With such fine ensemble work it feels wrong to single out anybody, but tenor Tom Randle in the title role was mesmerising. Full credit is due to mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen, who facially mimed Penelope's sufferings for the video cameras during long periods (when, in other productions, she could be resting off-stage). Veteran tenor Nigel Robson (Eumete) oozed experience, skills and passion while tenor Brian Galliford (Iro) delivered a hilarious but also deeply moving portrayal of the failed socialite. Tenor Thomas Hobbs (Telemaco) is blessed with a beautiful Mozartian voice while bass Francisco Javier Borda is comfortable even at the lowest of the low notes.   

Ensemble work was also of top quality in the small orchestra. Nevertheless, I will single out harpist Siobhan Armstrong because I have not heard such sensitive harp playing for a long time. Conductor Jonathan Cohen directed from the harpsichord, thus he played a part as well as he created the whole. And he triumphed.

By Agnes Kory

Photo credits: Johan Persson