Ritorno d’Ulisse in Basel without Ulysses

You arrive in the theatre for the Opera Basel’s performance of one of your favourite operas, Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, and you read in the programme that Krystian Lada, the director, has decided to dispense with the role of Ulysses.  In his place, there will be six men, all of them immigrants to Switzerland, talking about their experiences as such. And their spoken contributions will be accompanied by a new electronic score. To put it mildly, you are angry, dreading what you are about to experience. The first fifteen minutes or so do not reassure you. The set comprises mainly metal scaffolding with wooden boxes strewn around the stage. The gods disport themselves in white underwear. When Penelope appears, she is inside a transparent booth in which she will be confined for most of the evening.

And yet, at the end, after two and a quarter hours without an interval, you emerge from the theatre elated. You have not forgiven the management for the imposition of Nicolas Buzzi’s droning electronic music which you regard as an excrescence on Monteverdi’s marvellous score. Nor have you been convinced that the immigrants’ experiences of seeking a new homeland in Switzerland is sufficiently analogous to Ulysses’ long-awaited return to Ithaca to make the drama coherent. And yet …

Well, in the first place, the Basel Opera has made available some remarkably fine singers, perfectly attuned to the Monteverdi idiom. Most obviously, this was true of Serbian mezzo Katarina Bradić who offered not only a heart-warming account of Penelope’s woes but also feisty defiance of her suitors. Jamez McCorkle was the sturdy Telemachus, his robust tenor relishing while not caressing the vocal line. Stefanie Knorr was the bright-voiced, if somewhat subdued, Minerva and, as the loyal swineherd Eumaeus, the promising young singer Ronan Caillet bravely confronted the whims of fate. Perhaps surprisingly, those performing the three gods Jupiter, Juno and Neptune, doubling the roles of the suitors Pisandro, Amphinomos and Antinoos, came close to stealing the show. The bravado singing of, respectively, tenor Rolf Romei, counter tenor Théo Imart and bass Alex Rosen was so impressive, so reflected the vivacious antics of these characters, that one almost wished they had succeeded in their devious aims.

The conductor Johannes Keller and his specialist instrumentalists from I Musici de la Cetra reinforced the musical dimension with their application to lively rhythm and intricate phrasing (and appeared to be more tolerant of the electronic intrusions than I was).

So, what about the interpolated drama? My misgivings concerning the failure to integrate the alien dimensions into the original could not be overcome, but I have to confess that Krystian Lada’s production, apart from some occasional gratuitous movements and character interplay, became, as the evening developed, an exhilarating affair. It reminded me how epic, Brechtian theatre can effectively communicate simple political ideas, through extravagant, committed performances, whether you agree with those ideas or not. And is there a more satisfying operatic experience than leaving the theatre glowing with pleasure, having earlier feared the very worst?