The Return of Ulysses (1640): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses


(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

This is the second Monteverdi production that the Royal Opera House have staged ‘on tour’ (“if six stops north on the Northern Line is really ‘on tour’,” commented the lugubrious announcer at the beginning). The first was Orpheusthree years ago, likewise performed beneath the soaring iron canopy of the Roundhouse in Camden. Now this classic rock venue plays host to another Greek hero, the wily Odysseus (in his Latin incarnation as Ulysses), supported by the Early Opera Company with the ever-excellent Christian Curnyn at the helm. You may remember the story from the production that we saw by ETO back in October 2016, but I’ll whizz through again, just in case.

For twenty years, Penelope (Caitlin Hulcup) has been waiting for her husband. Twenty years of wondering if he’s dead or alive. Still no sign of him, though the walls of Troy were crushed ten years ago, and faithless Helen returned long ago to her husband Menelaus. But Penelope can’t give up hoping, though others have: her palace is full of Suitors plotting to win the hand of this widowed but still beautiful queen of Ithaca. Penelope’s maid Melantho (Francesca Chiejina) urges her to choose a new husband – not entirely disinterested advice, as Melantho is madly in love with the servant Eurymachus (Andrew Tortise) and knows that she can’t satisfy her own desires until her mistress is paired off. But Penelope holds firm, caring for her people, supported by her elderly retainers Eurycleia (Susan Bickley) and Eumaeus the shepherd (Mark Milhofer).

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Stuart Jackson (Irus) and Mark Milhofer (Eumaeus) © Tristram Kenton

Meanwhile, a man – a weary, lonely traveller – wakes on the shore to find himself finally back on Ithaca. This is Ulysses (Roderick Williams) who, with the help of Minerva (Catherine Carby) has finally made his way home. But she warns him to be cautious. Disguised as a beggar, he goes to find his old friend Eumaeus, who takes him in without knowing who he is (true, old-fashioned Greek hospitality). And, while Ulysses is there, he has an even more anticipated meeting, for Minerva has brought home his young son Telemachus (Samuel Boden), who has been wandering abroad in search of his father. But the greatest meeting of all remains: for Ulysses to see his wife Penelope again, to drive out the men who wish to defile his marriage bed, and to claim his throne.

It’s a curious opera, because you would’ve thought that Monteverdi would have leapt on the mythical elements of the story – the Sirens, Circe, Scylla, the Cyclops. Such things would have offered plenty of scope for the mechanical marvels so beloved of the time. But he focuses, instead, on a tiny part of the story: the human part. Yes, Minerva makes an appearance here, but it isn’t really about gods and monsters. It’s about constancy and faith. It’s about a man returning home, after too long an absence, and trying to pick up the threads of his life – trying to fit himself back into the shape of an absence that, perhaps, doesn’t fit the man he has become.

When reading up on the production, I discovered that Roderick Williams was a choral scholar at Magdalen (my college) back in the day. Thus, I simultaneously had very high hopes for him, and was prepared to be demanding (to uphold the honour of said college, etc.). H thought this was very funny. But I’m glad to report that Williams was brilliant: a perfect Ulysses, both vocally and physically. He was very different to Benedict Nelson, who sang the role in the ETO production in 2016 and who, as I noted at the time, sang Monteverdi like Wagner (with impressive effect). Williams was much more subtle and, having now heard both approaches, I think I prefer the quieter Ulysses. He was able to convey both force and vulnerability, and he had great stage presence, despite his slight build. Weathered and wiry, his Ulysses looks the part: a warrior, but a thinker too, a man whose sharp mind and tricky stratagems have developed because he can’t compete in brawn with the Hectors and Achilles of this world. When pretending to be a beggar, he stooped and cowered; but as a king, he strode. I loved the scene in which he introduces himself to Eumaeus as a beggar: as the old shepherd hobbles away, Ulysses strides out behind him, smiling to himself; every time Eumaeus turns to speak to his unknown guest, Ulysses sinks back into the craven attitude of a mendicant, hands extended.

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Samuel Boden (Telemachus) and Roderick Williams (Ulysses) © Tristram Kenton

Christine Rice was meant to sing the role of Penelope, but she was indisposed on the first night and, by last night, Caitlin Hulcup had taken over the role (having learned it in a week). I already thought Caitlin Hulcup was rather marvellous, so I couldn’t have been more thrilled by this news, and she made a superb Penelope: statuesque, dignified, acting as the moral centre of the piece. She’s no longer just fending off Suitors, but also tending to an island population swelled by refugees from the war abroad. This Penelope doesn’t spend long hours in her room weaving: she’s out on the beaches, distributing bread and water to the desperate people who’ve claimed sanctuary at her door. (I’m sure I don’t need to point out the contemporary parallels.) With her dark-shadowed mezzo and her ineffable poise, Hulcup’s Penelope is a queen in her own right – and thus she’s even more poignant in those few moments where she does break: at the beginning, as she writes her absent husband’s name in the sand, or at the end, as she visibly struggles to square this skinny, weather-beaten vagrant with her glorious Ulysses.

I confess that the opera only really burst into life for me when Ulysses arrives home: until that point, it’s all rather miserable and dour, but that’s Monteverdi’s fault rather than anyone else’s. Yes, I accept that the laments are beautiful, but I could have done with a little more cheer in the first part (the production does beef up the flirtation between Melantho and Eurymachus, as if recognising the need for a bit of fun). However, that’s not to criticise the singers, who were all very good. My one comment would be that Chiejina’s vibrato was a bit too heavy for music of this very early period, but she captured Melantho’s simple playfulness very well. None of the Suitors really had enough time to make an independent impression – though if I had to pick one, I’d say that David Shipley’s bass Antinous made the strongest impact. I’d also note that Nick Pritchard (here singing Amphinomus) gets stronger every time I see him.

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Peisander (Tai Oney) and the displaced people of the Chorus © Stephen Cummiskey

Mark Milhofer is always a joy to watch, and his Eumaeus was no exception – the man’s a complete chameleon and here he sang the doddery old shepherd with gusto and plenty of dramatic flair. He was challenged in the drama stakes by Stuart Jackson’s loathsome Irus, a bag of flesh and fat who towers over the lithe ‘beggar’ whom he challenges to a fight (Ulysses in disguise). But perhaps the most pleasing of the secondary roles was Samuel Boden’s Telemachus. I’ve always enjoyed listening to Boden, who has a beautiful light tenor that’s perfect for youthful roles. Here he captured Telemachus’ adolescent confusion: longing for his father to come home, yet somehow displaced by his arrival. I was amused – though not entirely convinced – by Telemachus’ breathless rendition to his mother of Helen’s charms (he’s just been in Sparta, searching for news of Ulysses). In this production, the impressionable boy comes on in a blonde wig, channelling Helen even as he fantasises about her. Penelope stares at him in horror and grabs the wig from him as soon as she can – she’s spent her entire life in the shadow of her voluptuous cousin, after all. It was an odd moment – but maybe one that toyed with different ideas of power. Which is greater, after all: military might, or seduction?

The more I think about this production, the more moving it becomes. I’m currently reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s excellent memoir An Odyssey, and so my brain is full of ideas about the themes and meanings of this archetypal story of struggle and homecoming. Some of those ideas, wonderfully, were reflected in the production. For example, the cyclical nature of Ulysses’ wanderings, the going away and coming home, was beautifully evoked by the stunning set. As was the case with Orpheus, the design was austere, almost non-existent. The story is king here. The Roundhouse’s distinctive form was echoed in the ring-shaped stage, at the centre of which sat the orchestra. Both orchestra and stage revolved slowly at certain points, turning in opposite directions to one another. That turning also implied the irresistible passage of time: the years that have separated Ulysses and Penelope, of course, but also the years that are to come.

And the final moments of the opera made that explicit. The two of them have been reunited, in amazement and delight… but the world keeps on turning. Penelope, anchored on one of the approach ramps, grips her husband’s hands, but he’s already being borne away from her on the cusp of time. What exactly does it mean? Are time, and death, cleaving them apart again? Or does it indicate what happens next – reported in some of the myths, and by Tennyson himself in his splendid poem Ulysses – that, once returned, the traveller bristles at the tedium of normal life, struggles to adapt, and yearns evermore for the road and the world beyond? – ‘How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rest unburnish’d, not to shine in use!‘ That the ageing wanderer, having found his way home to wife and son and hearth, is still unsatisfied, always pining ‘To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’?

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

Ulysses (Roderick Williams) © Stephen Cummiskey

I incline to the latter. Williams’s Ulysses is clearly a man driven by the thought of getting home – he’s screwed up all his strength to make that final journey, even running the final distance from shore to palace – but once he gets there, he seems lost. He’s a man brutalised by war, who has forgotten how to act in normal life. When he strings his mighty bow and slays the Suitors, this Ulysses is less hero and more vigilante. His vengeance spirals out of control. He murders Eurymachus; he even cuts Melantho’s throat when, in this production, their only crime is to be in love and to hope for better days ahead. By making the servants more sympathetic, this production makes Ulysses himself more shocking: a killer thrown back into civilised life.

After his killing spree, Ulysses simply lies on the floor, twitching like a man in a bad dream, clutching his bow like a drowning man to a plank – perhaps he’s horrified, wondering what he has become. For twenty years, his whole identity has been focused on getting home – on returning to his wife. Penelope has been his pole star (‘the calm at my centre‘, as he tells her at one point: a beautiful thing to say to the person you love). But now he’s done it. And he’s realised that, actually, now he’s cleared out the Suitors, Penelope and Telemachus don’t really need him. A homecoming is rarely a purely happy thing, especially after so long a time, because it demands that you put aside the person you’ve been (for twenty years, in Ulysses’ case). And how easily can that be done?

But let’s not forget the more lighthearted moments. There aren’t many in this opera, it’s true – it’s a very sober, serious story. But the production added in moments of glorious whimsy. Eumaeus’s sheep become bunches of white helium balloons, which baa in panic whenever Irus gets too close. Minerva brings Telemachus back from his journeying by tandem and, believe me, you haven’t seen Monteverdi until it’s being sung by a mezzo and a tenor furiously riding a tandem around a narrow ring-shaped stage. And yes, as you know, I have limited patience for directorial fluff. This didn’t feel like fluff. It was all done with a deep sympathy to the text – Monteverdi’s text, but also Homer. Moreover, the text itself, in the form of the translation, was expertly pitched, full of rhymes and half-rhymes, but in clear and elegant English. A very fine accomplishment from Cowell.

The performance was being filmed last night, so let’s hope that means it’ll be broadcast at some point. It’d be well worth a look, if only to get a closer view of the singers in action. If it is broadcast, give it time to work its spell. It’s a slow burner, something that becomes better the more you think it over. And, as you can see (for this is more essay than review), it throws up a lot of interesting questions. For my own part, I’m now going to have trouble imagining Ulysses/Odysseus as anyone but Williams: a shrewd, quiet, angry, world-weary man, perhaps no longer searching for home, but trying to find the peace within himself.

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