A bash in the ice rink
04/29/2005 - and 30 April, 2, 4, 6, 7 May 2005
Claudio Monteverdi: Ulysses comes home
Owen Willetts (Human Frailty/Phaeacian sailor/Anfinomus), Robert Winsdale Anderson (Time/Phaeacian sailor/Antinous), Susan Atherton (Cupid/Melantho), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Fortune/Minerva), Emma Selway (Penelope), Angela Hickey (Ericlea), Andrew Clarke (Eurymachus), Keel Watson (Neptune), Nicholas Watts (Phaeacian sailor/Pisandrus), Paul Nilon (Ulysses), Adrian Thompson (Eumaeus), Andrew Forbes-Lane (Irus), Mark Wilde (Telemachus), Andee-Louise Hipolite (Juno)
Robert Howarth (conductor), Graham Vick (director)
Birmingham Opera Company Baroque EnsembleRobert Howarth (conductor), Graham Vick (director)
Birmingham Opera Company Baroque Ensemble
Birmingham Opera Company has in recent years produced a series of obviously political operas -- Wozzeck, Fidelio and Candide, all directed by Graham Vick as part of sets of community projects. Monteverdi's Il ritorno di Ulisse nel patria, performed in English as Ulysses comes home, is at first sight far from political: it is the essence of "pure" narrative, telling what is says on the tin, how the hero Ulysses comes home from the Trojan war and finds himself with another fight on his hands to reclaim his throne and wife. But Ulysses discovers that Ithaca is a different place from the one he left – his wife Penelope is besieged and insecure, his son Telemachus is almost an adult, and no one recognizes him. And for Penelope, he is twenty years older than he was when he left, effectively an old man, no longer the husband whose absence she has mourned. Home, or the place you want to get to, is never quite what you think it will be.
The traditional interpretation of the Odyssey, summed up for example in Cavafy's poem Ithaca, is that it is the journey that is valuable, and that Ithaca is only the cause of the journey. Anyone who has experienced the misery of changing trains at Birmingham New Street might doubt that: it is positively a relief to be able to leave the station, even if you then enter the labyrinth of the Bull Ring and its hinterland. Giacomo Badoaro's libretto for Monteverdi superbly captures the sense of arriving and finding that you haven't arrived that is essential to the second half of the Odyssey, without any appeal to Circe and Calypso, the Cyclops and the Laestrygonians of the first half. Graham Vick's production suggested that the process of arriving has all of the Joycean exuberance of the journey but also the Kafkaesque alienation of a struggle with the deities of an unfathomable bureaucracy.
Some have objected to Vick's basic format, which required the audience to stand milling around for the first part of the opera on the wrong side of a fence in the no-man's-land of immigration processing before they achieved the joys of Ithaca, and seats, for the second part. There is certainly a difference between trying to enter a foreign country and coming home, but the emphasis is clearly on Ithaca as the place Ulysses (and everybody) wants to be. The sight of supers having fun on the other side of the fence, especially as part of the suitors' debauchery, made the point pretty well, as did the triviality of the pleasures – small pieces of baklava and the promise of intravenous champagne -- once the audience does get in. The real point, though, was clearly the visceral, or genual, desire to sit down, further refined by a comic raffle in the interval which initially seemed to threaten that only some of the audience will get seats. The idea that most of what you want it wonderful because you want it, not because it is, is also reinforced in the interval by a jokey election campaign by the suitors, which generated almost as much bumpf as the real-world equivalent, just finished.
The trimmings of absence, desire and fantasy were a lot to take in in the huge space of the abandoned ice rink, structured only by the fence that divided it. But they were in any case subsidiary to the performance of the work itself, which justified whatever Graham Vick did to make it the way it was. The deities, appearing on platforms above the audience, were epic, huge and comic; the suitors were smooth and seductive. Outstanding among the immortals was the glorious soprano Wendy Dawn Thompson as a strapping biker Minerva, and also a curvy bunny girl Fortune. Emma Selway's Penelope was gaunt, anguished and steadfast; Mark Wilde's Telemachus was brave and youthfully optimistic.
Irus, the parasitic glutton, and Eumaeus, Ulysses' faithful herdsman, here translated to a kebab-van owner, start off slagging each other off, naturally enough since, like Nicely Nicely and Uncle Arvide in Guys and Dolls, their comparatively small roles can compete to steal, and can also make or break, the show. Andrew Forbes-Lane's whiteface Irus was suitably slimy, and slipped easily into his interval stand-up routine. Adrian Thompson was decent and touching as Eumaeus, especially moving in his duet with Ulysses where they compare the return of Telemachus to the arrival of spring.
Paul Nilon was less than heroically tall as Ulysses but totally engaging, and often heartbreaking in his emotional directness. He also sang sublimely.
The continuo and small ensemble, directed by Robert Howarth, at first seemed to risk being drowned in the echoing space but clearly, and impressively, knew how to make an impact.