Friday, June 14, 2019

A translucent, introspectively drawn drama resonates with beauty in Pinchgut Opera's The Return of Ulysses in Sydney

Pause. And think about this. You’re experiencing live a nearly 400 year old music drama based on the second oldest extant work of Western literature. Outside, there’s a maddening world in which humankind’s progress is vividly on show but in which there is never respite from struggle. All of a sudden, Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, based on the second part of Homer’s Ancient Greek epic poem, Odyssey, becomes a savoury slice of arabesque sermonising in which virtue and constancy ultimately triumph over villainy and greed.

Fernando Guimarães as Ulysses and Brenton Spiteri as Telemaco
Pinchgut Opera, aglow after winning the recent International Opera Award for Best Rediscovered Work for last season’s Artaserse and employing its director Chas Rader-Shieber once again, have breathed expression and vitality into Monteverdi’s work in signature class while overcoming any hint of it being a dusty irrelevant museum piece.

The story recounts Ulysses’ long journey home to Ithaca 10 years after the end of the Trojan Wars, aided by the reasoning gods, his son Telemaco and his friend Eumete to his unerringly faithful queen, Penelope. It’s equally Penelope’s story as she longs for Ulysses, is harassed by three persistent suitors but is eventually rewarded with his return, arriving as an old disguised vagabond who strings Ulysses’ bow after she promises to marry the suitor who can do so.

On paper, bringing in 22 characters from mortals to gods, it might seem convoluted but Rader-Shieber polishes the slow-cooking drama with an eye on intimacy and a deftness at extracting unflagging emotional coherence from Giacomo Badoaro’s poetic libretto. Simple, thought provoking and effective, Melanie Liertz’s set and costumes support the narrative tastefully with what appears era-crossing aesthetics. A 12-metre high arcing gauze curtain that occasionally opens separates a celestial background space and an earth-bound foreground with Nicholas Rayment’s lighting adding subtle beauty to its stream of compact scenes.

Nicholas Tolputt, Douglas Kelly and Wade Kernot as the three suitors
and Catherine Carby as Penelope
So why might a cast of 10 who double and triple in 22 roles first appear half-dressed in white and ivory baroque underclothes before the Prologue gets underway? Perhaps they’re a troupe of performers readying themselves for the theatre. Artistic Director and conductor Erin Helyard is amongst them too, before stepping out to join his musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes who are similarly attired in a statement that, as one, music and drama are fused. Tellingly, Penelope steps out of the role of Human Frailty and becomes clothed in a dark regal gown. Ulysses becomes both coated military man and bedraggled beggar. But, when the couple rejoice in their reunion, they are stripped backed to basics in a sign that it is virtue, not clothes, that maketh the man. As part of this clever costume-play, in which characters are easily identifiable, the three wealthy unscrupulous suitors are fittingly top-hatted and trouser-less.

Musically, mood and colour shifts and variations rise in generous relief under Helyard’s exacting standards in front of an orchestra providing unwavering expertise. Then there is that inexplicable feeling when line after line of arioso begins to feel as fresh and edgy as modern music. The last time I saw this work, at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2015, I’m afraid Monteverdi sagged and lumbered through Act One. But Helyard’s infusion of energy, a strong sense of drama in direction and a wholly committed cast present The Return of Ulysses with appealing translucency. My only qualm is turning  Monteverdi’s prologue and three acts into a two-part evening in which a 100-minute first part is packed to overflow.

Jacob Lawrence as Giove
Muscular Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães sings with spontaneous-like realism and conviction in the title role. In a marvellous and uniquely crafted marriage of text and musicality, Guimarães insightful interpretation leaves no doubt that Ulysses’ burdens are as pressing as his determination is heroic. When Minerva appears, informing Ulysses that Penelope has remained steadfastly faithful, the response comes with electric, fluidly sung joy that sets up a heartfelt reunion in the final act. Along the way, in one of the most melting highlights, Guimarães equally displays jubilance in his warm and tender reunion with his son Telemaco, who tenor Brenton Spiteri embodies with youthful bravery and a vibrant, luminous tone while brilliantly capturing an underlying sense of adventurous spirit and sincerity in his character.

And how fortunate it is to have Catherine Carby’s plush mezzo-soprano full of dark and dolorous colours give Penelope so much imposing stature and rippling sensitivity. Throughout Act One’s long opening passage of lamentation, “Di misera regina”, Carby unswervingly took command of a character in hopeless grief, her calmly postured Penelope leaning further and further into headstrong territory and sung with intoxicating magnetic strength. To the end, Carby’s smashing lower register, rich middle-range and refined top sculpted a character-rich portrayal and, together with Guimarães’ Ulysses, the drama’s most convincing characters were drawn.

Tenor Jacob Lawrence is a notable mention, giving both Giove and Eumete strong and assured presence in radiant and resonant form. The flamboyant and gluttonous Iro is comically mastered in robust voice by tenor Mark Wilde. Sparkling soprano Roberta Diamond and bold tenor Douglas Kelly share a wonderfully relaxed and lusty chemistry as the lovers Melanto and Eurimaco.

Mark Wilde  as Iro
Diamond’s bouncy Amore and assured Giunone, as the goddess who persuades Giove and Nettune that Ulisse should be restored to the throne, are similarly admirable. Kelly joins sturdy pure-toned countertenor Nicholas Tolputt and hefty bass Wade Kernot in bringing their botanical analogies of love’s necessity to the table as the grovelling slimy suitors in luxuriant harmony and bright and golden soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell is matched beautifully to the voices of Fortuna, Ericlea and a notably warm and enticing Minerva.

In the centuries that have passed, it might be easy to assume that humankind thinks differently on many levels. But in the oft gentle introspective ambience of The Return of Ulysses, you’ll discover a commonality that may surprise.

The Return of Ulysses
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 19th June, 2019

Production Photos: Brett Boardman

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