Monteverdi’s Ulysses by the ETO

A reviewer of the English Touring Opera’s Ritorno d’Ulisse concluded that it was the best production of the work s(he) had seen. Not far wrong. With its direct, unexaggerated narrative style, and deft movement, James Conway caught the right balance between emotion, awe and comedy. Ingenuity with props was aided by the imaginative designs of Takis; for example the hull of Ulysses’ ship becoming bows for future combat and their strings a variety of threads for enticing victims and foes. The lighting (designer Mark Howland) beautifully created the atmosphere: shades of blue for Greek seascape; red for the anger of the Gods. At the head of the reliable Old Street Band, Jonathan Peter Kenny generated a most satisfying musical performance – a word of praise particularly for the wind players trilling from a box on high. A fine cast was headed by Benedict Nelson as Ulysses and Carolyn Dobbin as Penelope. Appropriately careworn, his baritone nevertheless rang out with fervour when called for; her rich mezzo caressed the vocal line. Nick Pritchard was a forthright, bright-toned Telemachus, Martha Jones a pert, sweet-voiced Melanto. John-Colyn Gyeantey was a moving Eumaeus and counter tenor Clint Van der Linde switched effectively from an arrogant suitor to a bumbling old nurse. But the star performance was undoubtedly that of Katie Bray as Minerva. Brilliant in the runs above the stave, warm in the lower register and with an imposing stage presence, she was completely engaging.

There is one controversial aspect to be addressed. Giving the work in the audience’s language enhanced communication of the drama – one could also relish Anne Ridler’s rhyming couplets – but at some price. Monteverdi’s vocal ornamentation at the end of phrases which works wonderfully with Italian vowels as the last syllable founders when applied to the different stresses of English pronunciation. I recall that when Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first given at Sadlers Wells in the 1970s, for this reason, the company forsook its policy of all performances in English. Anyway, this is a minor reservation. Bravo! (or rather bravi!) the ETO.