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|
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
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|
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|
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
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 19th June, 2019
Production Photos: Brett Boardman