sat 13/07/2024

The Return of Ulysses, ENO, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

The Return of Ulysses, ENO, Young Vic

The Return of Ulysses, ENO, Young Vic

Monteverdi's psychologically accurate vision of war-torn lives is a masterpiece

Penelope, powerfully acted and sung by Pamela Helen Stephen, stands behind Minerva, the mesmerising Ruby Hughes

Wars have no end. Soldiers may come home, battlefields may be vacated, peace treaties signed, but scars remain. The violence of combat has a way of revisiting itself on the victors and vanquished and ravaging soul and state.

This was the message of Benedict Andrews's new production of Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses for the English National Opera at the Young Vic, which sees Ithaca as a mutilated world, inhabited by a suicidal wife, a brutalised soldier and a society grotesquely drunk on its own supremacy.<--break->

The curtain lifts on a grieving widow. Penelope circles her cage, a shiny modern glass box of a condo (set design: Börkur Jónsson), staving off madness and rage, fending off three vile suitors whose capacity for sexual violence appears about to spill over at any moment and two well-meaning maids who try valiantly with reason and sympathy to nurse her back to mental health. In front of her bed, war rages on a flat-screen TV.

Andrews drags the sermonising Prologue into this fug of woe. As Time, Fortune and Love swoop down to torture Human Frailty, their faces disfigured by latex balaclavas, are we not meant to think that life and its many cruel abuses are a war itself? In this production, life is nothing but a war - a domesticated war playing out on a domesticated battlefield.

Like much opera of the 17th century, bowing dutifully as it does to the word over the music, Monteverdi seems happy to accompany the drama, not to lead, push, manipulate or exaggerate its meaning but merely to punctuate and intensify the truths and realities already being expressed in the libretto (beautifully translated by Christopher Cowell). The vocal score comes across as little more than fortified speech, dominated as it is by recitative and terse melodies (and only intermittently by anything that might resemble 18th-century aria - though there are some fine little ensembled numbers). All of which obviates the need for impressive tessitura or much puff from the singers, and allows instead for immense subtlety and emotional and dramatic range.

There was great depth of talent - young and old - in the many supporting roles, whose beautifully and richly observed quotidien activity, spread all over the stage, was videoed and relayed on two large screens (video design: Sean Bacon). There was Ruby Hughes as the mesmerising puppet-master Minerva (who unnervingly shadows Penelope throughout the opera), Samuel Boden as a fantastically lyrical and knuckle-headed suitor Anfinomo and Thomas Hobbs in a touching turn as Ulysses's son, Telemaco. Outstanding among the older cast members were Diana Montague's phlegmatic old nurse, Ericlea, and Nigel Robson's sympathetic, but never ingratiating, everyman, Eumete. Hobbs deserves particular praise for his part in the second most moving moment of the night: the stunningly quiet reunion with his father Ulysses (Tom Randle).

The very beginning set the bar high, though, with Pamela Helen Stephen's astonishingly honest opening outpouring of sorrow (informed no doubt by the recent death of her husband Richard Hickox). As Stephen's voice lowered and darkened, the small period orchestra (marshalled well by Jonathan Cohen throughout) thickening, the music weaving Penelope's web, a thick fog of grief descended on the theatre.

And then there was the consummate Randle, singing without blemish throughout. His Ulysses is a deeply traumatised, semi-sane man, who ends up excising his demons through an act of extreme brutality. I kept being reminded of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker; is this what happens to Sergeant William James? The ambiguity of the role, the way Randle trips up our moral compass by switching so suddenly from pitiable victim to repulsive murderer, comes as a thrilling shock.

What Andrews seems to have realised is that, 400 years before the rise of the contemporary docu-opera, at the dawn of this fragile new art form, here in Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses is a fully formed psychologically accurate testament to the real world in all its detailed glory. Andrews figures of myth live and breath. They talk to the nature of personal relations in a state at war better than anything else I have seen. The emotions ring true, the activity quickens the pulse, the words strike the heart. And the result is a masterpiece.

The emotions ring true, the activity quickens the pulse, the words strike the heart. The result is a masterpiece

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