(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 15 October 2016)
Most operas are about infatuation: the sudden, all-consuming flare of love that causes kingdoms to fall, mountains to crumble and worlds to change – the love of Paris for Helen, for example. We don’t hear quite so often about the quieter, more enduring kind of love that ‘withstands tempests and is never shaken’. Yet here, in his second surviving opera, Monteverdi does just that. His heroes, Ulysses and Penelope, aren’t tumultuous young things: on the contrary, they’re two people of a certain age, trying to make the best of a bad job. It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, does it? And it isn’t, if by drama you mean fire and the clash of steel. But it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in opera so far, because it takes the power out of the hands of kings and emperors, and lays bare the workings of the human heart.
Although its title gives precedence to Ulysses, this is actually the story of his wife Penelope: the steadfast, wise and loyal woman who keeps the home fires burning during his twenty-year absence. As would-be suitors gather like vultures, hoping to become the next master of Ithaca, Penelope (Carolyn Dobbin) keeps them at bay with clever stratagems and soft words worthy of her wily husband. While she plays off her beaux, one against another, her adult son Telemachus (Nick Pritchard) returns from seeking news of his absent father in Sparta. What neither of them realises is that Ulysses (Benedict Nelson) is already among them, washed up on Ithaca’s shore after a storm. His patroness, the goddess Minerva (Katie Bray), disguises him as an old beggar and it’s in this guise that he reacquaints himself with his kingdom: his loyal subject, the shepherd Eumaeus (John-Colyn Gyeantey), Telemachus and, finally, Penelope herself.
Eventually, Minerva sees a way for her favourite to seek revenge on the men who’ve preyed on Penelope. A contest is proposed: Penelope’s hand will be the prize for whichever man can string Ulysses’s great bow. One by one the suitors try, and fail; but Penelope is horrified to see a humble beggar succeed in the task. What does this mean? And, even when everyone tells her that her long-lost husband has returned, can she bring herself to believe it?
Once again I went to the pre-show talk, this time given by the director James Conway, and again it was helpful in encouraging me to think more deeply about what I was seeing. Conway asked us to consider whether this story truly has a happy ending, or whether in fact it’s a compromise for both characters. Ulysses has been away for twenty years, only ten of which were spent at war: the other ten have been spent gallivanting around the Middle Sea, dallying with sorceresses and princesses. His decision to return is the triumph of common sense over fantasy; duty over self-indulgence; the trustworthy and familiar over the heady and exotic. But, if Ulysses will find it hard to adjust, how much more of a compromise is it for Penelope! Conway made some excellent points. Penelope is not some simpering girl who throws herself into her husband’s arms. She’s a mature, experienced ruler in her own right. After only a year or so of marriage, her husband went off to fight the cause of another woman – Penelope’s troublesome, too-pretty-for-her-own-good cousin Helen – and he’s been away for two decades. Has Penelope caved in under the pressure? No! She’s risen to the challenge, taken the reins of government into her own hands and raised her son alone. Perhaps she refuses to marry again not just because she’s loyal to Ulysses, but also because she enjoys independence.
And then, suddenly, this husband who Penelope barely knows reappears. And he doesn’t come openly and honestly, but in disguise. He reenters her life by slaughtering the suitors whose egos she’s been so carefully balancing. In one fell swoop, he murders numerous princes (here there are only three, Antinous, Eurymachus and Pisander) and sparks off a whole catalogue of potential blood-feuds. Penelope would be entirely justified in feeling angry at him. But funnily enough, that’s not the reaction that Monteverdi’s librettist, Giacomo Badoaro, chose to show. Instead, this Penelope simply won’t believe that Ulysses is back. She has seen the power of the gods to deceive and trick. An aged beggar has already transformed before her eyes into her husband. Why should she believe this new form? Her stubborn resistance, her reliance upon logic and reason in the face of a troubling world, is immensely appealing. She only allows herself to believe him when Ulysses describes the blanket she once wove for their bedchamber, an inner sanctum that no other man has ever seen. Then, at last, she accepts him.
The lovely thing about Ulisse is that it’s so consistently thoughtful: more than any other opera I’ve seen, it feels like a sung play. As Conway noted, the characters of Ulysses and Penelope spend almost the entire opera singing in monody (i.e. what I think of as recitative) rather than melody (i.e. arias). There’s something beautifully elevated and austere about this style, which is directly derived from the customs of ancient Greek theatre. It allows the psychological depth of the characterisation to come out in a way that’s more difficult when something is full of sparkly distracting arias. At the end, rather than lose themselves in decadently intertwining melody, the characters sing a very gentle, refined duet in which their voices, like their souls, tentatively reach out for one another and seek a new way to coexist. In this production, the simplicity was emphasised by the staging of the final scene: a man and a woman, both in white, sitting close together but not embracing, presented as equals. The physical contact was limited to a hand on a knee or an arm: a gorgeously understated reading.
The set – conceived by takis, who also designed Calisto – allows the intelligent text to shine. It’s very sparse, with a white wall in mock-marble on the right, in which windows and doors can be opened. On the left, there’s a row of strange curved objects. These fulfilled a series of creative functions: they became oar-benches on a ship, the rotting strakes of a wreck on a beach, and of course a line of unstrung bows. A net of red threads imprisons the allegory of Human Frailty (Clint van der Linde) in the Prologue; those same threads, attached to Ulysses’ fatal arrows, represent the fatal destiny of the suitors at the end. I was delighted to see that the costumes had a half-classical, half-Renaissance feel to them: a pleated chiton and lovely Classical-style wig for Penelope, with padded knee-length doublets for the men. Everything was, like the music, very simple but very effective.
Vocally, this was the most satisfying night of ETO’s three productions. I was amazed by Carolyn Dobbin. I’d already enjoyed her Amastris in Xerxes last week, and she was just wonderful as Penelope: her voice warm and mellow, full of dignity and old, half-spoken pain. Yet she had spirit, too: when Telemachus tells her of his encounter with Helen in Sparta, failing entirely to hide his starry eyes, Penelope leaves him in no doubt about her contempt for the kind of love that prompts bloodshed. Nick Pritchard continued to impress as Telemachus, and I think I need to stress that he sang this the night after singing Mercury in Calisto: another full role. An impressive feat of memory.
The three suitors were familiar faces for various reasons: Andrew Slater and Clint van der Linde were in Xerxes, and the suitor Eurymachus was played by Robert Anthony Gardiner, who I saw as Mercury in Bampton Classical Opera’s double bill earlier in the summer. The suitors aren’t great roles, it’s true, and it was here that I was slightly less than completely bowled over. Gardiner has a gorgeous tenor but he sometimes wobbles slightly, and while van der Linde did a great job as the nurse Ericlea, I felt that his Pisander was a bit too fluting and not quite strong enough. Of the other minor roles, Martha Jones was very good as Penelope’s flirtatious maid Melanto, while John-Colyn Gyeantey brought out all the glowing goodwill of the cuddly Eumaeus. Katie Bray, who made such an impression as Calisto‘s rampant Satirino, channelled some principal-boy-style perkiness as Minerva, once again showing off a soprano that could cut glass. And Adam Player introduced a welcome note of absurd comedy as the glutton Irus, waddling around in a virtually spherical fat-suit.
But for me the highlight – or perhaps joint highlight, with Dobbin – was Benedict Nelson’s Ulysses. My goodness, that man has a voice. Rich and resonant, his baritone must have shaken down every speck of dust in the rafters: he sang Monteverdi with the kind of power usually associated with Wagner. And it worked! His strong voice, especially when coming from the shadows of a beggar’s hood, was perfect for the role and he was able to rein it back so that in gentler moments, like the final duet, he didn’t overpower his stagemates.
Let me be honest: I’m not sure that I would sit down and listen to Ulisse on CD; not yet, anyway. But I’m very keen to watch other versions of it, and I know there’s at least one on the Naxos Video Library, so I’ll be looking into it. It’s so wonderful to see a story about sensible, grown-up love rather than the turtle-doves and tempests of Metastasio (much as I adore him). And what a treat, to hear it with such a cast! All three operas were delightful, in fact. Do keep an eye out for ETO as they make their way across the country. If you have the chance to see any or all of these shows, I strongly recommend you do so – and please make the effort to go to the pre-show talks, because they really do offer food for thought. Well done ETO.