CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Summer Opera: Wolf Trap's 'Ulysses' Beyond Thunderdome

Jamie Barton (Penelope, left) and Jamie Van Eyck (Melanto, rear center) in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Act II, Wolf Trap Opera (photo by Carol Pratt)
It is no secret that Wolf Trap Opera's production of Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria was one of the most anticipated parts of our summer opera plans. Monteverdi (1567-1643), the father of opera, was a composer of genius who should be thought of as the Bach, the Mozart, the Strauss of his time, whose pioneering later compositional style in many ways provided the groundwork of tonal music. Il ritorno d'Ulisse, the first of three operas (concluding with L'Incoronazione di Poppea) from the final years of the composer's life (see my preview article for more background information), is one of those powerfully affecting twilight works, made by a composer at the height of his musical and dramatic powers but with only a short time left to live. Any performance of Ulisse is a work of reconstruction, and conductor Gary Thor Wedow's version, with credit also to viola da gambist Lawrence Lipnik, was no different in that regard. Beginning with Alan Curtis's edition, Wedow and Lipnik cut about 20 minutes of music, reordered some things, and added some instrumental pieces by Monteverdi and other composers.

The instrumentation followed many of Curtis's suggestions, with trombones and trumpet a nice substitution for cornetti, but also with an eyebrow-raising addition of xylophone (!) to the gods' scene in the third act -- evocative of magical power, I guess, but jarringly out of place. The orchestra, spilling out into the house, played with balanced tone and precision, from the strings (led by violinist Elizabeth Field) to the recorders (with some second and third parts actually played by the gambist, Lipnik, on recorder) to the brass, who played on the stage in some of the gods' scenes and even in the rear stairwell with the chorus in the sea. The recitatives were particularly beautiful, with pleasing variation of sounds between instruments, including Baroque organ, harpsichord, and two theorbos, and a sense of elasticity that allowed and encouraged the singers to sing this most dramatic (and often misunderstood) type of music with exciting and varied freedom.

available at Amazon
Ellen Rosand, Monteverdi's Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy
(University of California Press, 2007)

Preview on Google Books
It worked to have Dominic Armstrong (Ulisse) double as L'Umana Fragilità in the prologue (with the oppressive figures of Time, Love, and Fortune imprisoning him in a mask and straitjacket), with the part transposed down for a male voice, but it was a misstep to conflate the roles of Eurimaco, Melanto's lover, and Pisandro, one of Penelope's suitors. This undercut one of the most important contrasts in Monteverdi's score, between Melanto and Eurimaco's "exuberant lyricism" and the "intransigence" of Penelope, expressed in her "austere and speech-like mode of expression, which suggests her reluctance (or inability) to release her voice in song" (the quotations are from Ellen Rosand's seminal book on the late Monteverdi operas, p. 268). Melanto's lover urges her to sway Penelope's cold-heartedness and then becomes one of the suitors attempting to seduce Penelope? Then Melanto (the lovely, nimble-voiced Jamie Van Eyck) hands the bow to Ulisse, becoming complicit in her lover's murder? Tenor David Portillo, a pleasing Ferrando in last month's Così, sang with a suave, measured upper register but could not dispel the nonsense this made of part of the story. Reconstruction, yes; obfuscation, no.

Ava Pine (Minerva, above) and Dominic Armstrong (Ulisse) in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Act I, Wolf Trap Opera (photo by Carol Pratt)
The enormous cast had no real weak links, although it is a miscalculation to expect that these young singers, many of whom have had little training in early Baroque opera, could adapt perfectly to Monteverdi's different stylistic demands. Jamie Barton had a forceful, immovable, chest-placed resonance as Penelope, but a tendency toward forced production drove the intonation sharp at some points, most disastrously in the opera's final cadence. Unfortunately, the vampiric costuming, stringy red wig, and makeup (costumes designed by Andrea Huelse, hair and makeup by Elsen Associates) made her a figure more absurd -- a little too Elvira -- than regal. Tenor Dominic Armstrong showed a more heroic side to his voice, after his more lyric Macheath in the Castleton Festival's Beggar's Opera, although costuming Ulysses as Captain Ahab or the Gorton's Fisherman was also odd. Diego Torre was a completely grotesque and yet heroic (nice high note!) and almost sympathetic Iro: his spectacular death scene, broadly comic and yet sad, left the audience stunned into silence. The three suitors -- Portillo as Pisandro, Carlos Monzón as Antinoo, and Matthew Hanscom as a hilariously fruity Anfinomo -- had almost too much fun as 80s Eurotrash lotharios, complete with gold bling, headbands, and one ridiculous studded leather codspiece.

This production is an apt demonstration of one of the points made by Nikolaus Bachler in his interview with Jens Laurson for Playbill Arts, that in opera staging "all the developments from Europe come to the States ten, twenty years later." Indeed, this surreal, postmodern version of Ulisse, with the prologue's allegorical characters and the gods costumed like punk rockers, is quite like something one could have seen in Zurich or Brussels in the 80s and 90s. Penelope's court seemed to be living on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, and the gods with their metallic makeup, leather, and steel headgear and accessories were like refugees from a futuristic techno music video. Vocally, the gods were strong, especially the polished Nettuno of Nicholas Masters (doubling as the winged, platform-booted figure of Time in the prologue) and the booming, if oddly androgynous Giove of Daniel Billings.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Wolf Trap Opera's dynamic blast from past: Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses' (Clef Notes, July 27)

Mark J. Estren, Spirited 'Return of Ulysses' at Wolf Trap (Washington Post, July 27)

T. L. Ponick, A triumphant 'Ulysses' (Washington Times, July 27)
Ava Pine, so impressive as Morgana in last year's Alcina, handled the part's ascendant flights with panache but seemed a little unsteady balancing thigh-high boots and a metal-spiked helmet. Chad Sloan's (baritone) Telemaco was swallowed in tone and slightly clunky in melismatic passages, making his duet with Ulisse more bombastic than tender. He did not seem any younger than Armstrong's Ulisse, making one wonder if the casting should have been reversed. Paul Appleby's smaller, sweeter voice may have been a better match for Telemaco, but he made a gentle, forthright Eumete. Ultimately, while the production was certainly colorful and fun, it did little to enlighten the viewer about the work's significance. The video images reflected on a set of moving panels (scenic design by Eric Allgeier, projection and video design by S. Katy Tucker) seemed curiously fixated on close-ups of eyes. No, it was not a tribute to Ionarts (see the banner at the top of this page) but, as explained in James Marvel's director's notes, had something to do with the theme of blindness. For anyone who has watched Luis Buñuel's surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, this constant image introduced an unwelcome feeling of anxiety into the opera, as one waited for the eyes to be slit open with a razor.

One performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria remains, tomorrow evening (July 28, 8 pm).


Varun said...

Awww... we were taking bets about whether you'd comment on the over the top suitors, and I guess I lost!

For what it's worth, I was fascinated by the structure of the opera. The "traditional" rigid silence-aria-silence-aria-repeat structure of opera always struck me as a little contrived, and I enjoyed Monteverdi using music to drive the entire opera, ala Gluck. The pauses between arias and continuo in "traditional" opera always leaves me less than satisfied.

By the way - did you notice the piece that they lifted wholesale from L'Orfeo right after the break? I know they said they were patching it up with other pieces, but I was waiting for Silvia to come marching in!

Akimon Azuki said...

That giant eye was very freaky and I totally expected a razor to come out and slash it!!!
Great evening overall though...

Charles T. Downey said...

It was nice to finally meet both of you there! It was great that Wolf Trap mounted the opera, to be sure, and it was a very enjoyable evening, even with a few complaints.

The structure of the opera always offers new revelations, doesn't it? William Christie made a point about how Monteverdi gives a different vocal characterization to the deities, and that really stuck in my ear this time.

I thought I heard something from "Orfeo" in there -- thanks for pointing out where it came from.