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When my Ulysses comes home

Linbury Studio
07/26/2004 -  and 27 July 2004
Edward Rushton: Philoctetes, Barks, Linen from Smyrna
Owen Gilhooly (Philoctetes), Julian Tovey (Odysseus), Christopher Lemmings (Neoptolemus), Martin Nelson (Owl), Jakob Cristian Zethner (Swallow), Louise Mott (Penelope), Carol Rowlands (Euryclea), Claire Wild (Nausicaa), Donna Bateman (Kalypso), Simone Sauphanor (Circe)

Gary Cornelius (conductor), John Fulljames (director)

You know you're old when composers and librettists look young enough to be your children. Edward Rushton and Dagny Gioulami, the composer and librettist of this ingenious new trilogy, looked at the curtain call as if they were scarcely out of college, and their work certainly has a lot of verve and optimism about the possibilities of opera. Rushton's previous work, The man with the carnation, premiered at Aldeburgh and the Almeida, was puzzling and expressionistic, and difficult to pin down musically. Gioulami's librettos, each involving the ambiguous hero Odysseus, are coherent and dramatic, and bring out clearer musical shapes.

Philoctetes is an efficient compression of Sophocles' play, with a Greek bar-owner and his sidekick replacing the chorus and adding an element of male bonding in alienation. The text and music seemed to provide to some extent the equivalent of the lyrical forms and their associated modes of the original drama, including Philoctetes' metrical cries of pain. Owen Gilhooly was suitably tormented as the wounded hero who survives by shooting birds, here in return for beer from the bar-owner and his pal, a pair out of Beckett sung with bluff detachment by Martin Nelson and Jakob Cristian Zethner. Christopher Lemmings as Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, was sweet and confused but definitely a soldier, movingly troubled about doing his duty in deceiving Philoctetes to get hold of the bow that is fated to capture Troy. Julian Tovey as Odysseus was an arrogant thug, but suggested enough intelligence to be plausible as the great shifter. He made Sean Bean in the film Troy look like a wuss. It wasn't absolutely clear whether the vision of Heracles who tells Philoctetes to hand over the bow was the demigod himself who happened to be a similar thug, or Odysseus pulling a fast one in oracular verse, for which there is no textual evidence although commentators have speculated on it. Sophocles was mainly interested in the complex relationship between intelligence and character, but this Philoctetes is more of a stylish low comedy about the fallibility of heroes of all kinds, emotionally difficult but not quite classically tragic.

Barks, a mainly instrumental canine stream-of-consciousness, depicts Odysseus's return to Ithaca and the death of his dog Argos when he recognizes his master. The ten singers, chained to the stage like dogs, sang doggy sounds and a poetic narrative was projected over the stage. Gioulami suggests that this is a kind of satyr play, but it functions more obviously as a visceral bridge between the high concepts of the two other works. Argos' adoration of Odysseus' is purely sensual, based on the joy of a familiar smell, a brief reminder of the most basic form of attachment.

Linen from Smyrna, for five female singers who balance the five male singers in Philoctetes, is part Strauss comedy (think of Jupiter's exes in Die Liebe der Danae, or a comic Bluebeard's Castle) and part Eastenders wake. After Odysseus' comically abrupt death, his wife Penelope and his three other women gather for his funeral, served drinks by his nurse Euryclea. Each woman has a personal musical style: Penelope, beautifully sung by Louise Mott, is grand and controlled, with a suggestion of great depths; Nausicaa, now married to Telemachus, is still infatuated, singing a gauche and suggestive eulogy in doggerel; Calypso, an elegant, leggy Donna Bateman, is a diva; and Circe is a dippy new ager whose rituals with pink pigs somehow let the other women get their conflicts over the dead Odysseus out of their systems. Simone Sauphanor's Circe was appropriately alluring in spite of a thankless costume, but her character had the least help from the music. Claire Wild as Nausicaa was the only singer who made every word audible.

At the end, Euryclea broke her servile silence to tell the audience that Odysseus had returned to her breast, something that no one ever knew, even Homer. This twist is a revision of Homer's world view, where Calypso represents an infantile withdrawal from the world, and perhaps provides a pendant to Argos' pleasure in the smell of his master. Perhaps the purely sensual appeal of music is also at the bottom of the allure of the best-constructed opera.

Adam Wiltshire's designs were striking and simple, a circular arena for Philoctetes, a dark chamber for Odysseus' wake, both shot through with spectral arrows and red thread. John Fulljames' direction kept things lucid and edgy.

HE Elsom



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