English National Opera’s
collaboration with the Young Vic is now in its fourth year and, with a string
of hits behind them, it’s tempting to think that this little and large duo are
due to serve us up a dud. They certainly
don’t with Benedict Andrews’ dazzlingly theatrical The Return of
This is an evening of
bold imagination, sexy and tender and startling, full of fascinating imagery
and fine sounds. Andrews directs his
cast superbly and there’s not an extraneous moment or unmotivated action,
although some may find his style, honed at Berlin’s exploratory Schaubühne, over-produced.
Certainly there’s more
than enough to look at, our attention drawn in every direction, and Andrews does
resort to techniques – puppetry, videoed sequences and Abu Ghraib visuals –
that are starting to look a little clichéd on the opera stage. That, and an over-abundance of splatter on
the glass walls, could send the Katie Mitchell-haters (Minerva empties a bag of
flour over her head at one point) charging for the exits. For anyone looking beyond the traditional,
it’s a gripping and thrilling spectacle and Andrews’
personenregie is astonishing.
Monteverdi’s opera of
1640 tells the story of the second half of The Odyssey, with
Ulysses’ queen still anxiously awaiting his return from a 20 year absence at
the Trojan Wars and its adventurous aftermath.
Pamela Helen Stephen proves
herself a fine actress as a devastated Penelope, unable to pluck herself from
despair and constantly groped by predatory suitors. As Ulisse, Tom Randle is on top form,
alternating tenderness with unexpected bursts of violence. His Pulp
Fiction-like despatch of his rivals shocks in its suddenness and savagery.
Of the younger singers,
Katherine Manley is a flirty and seductive Melanto, shedding her knickers for
Thomas Walker’s finely-sung Eurimaco. Thomas
Hobbs (this is a show of Toms) fulfills his golden-toned promise as a recent
RAM student as the royal son Telemaco and Ruby Hughes impresses as a striking
Diana Montague is a
consummate Ericlea and another old hand, Nigel Robson, excels as the other
faithful servant Eumete.
The Young Vic, in yet
another configuration, shows itself once again as a great space for modest-scale
opera and Icelandic designer Börkur Jónsson’s elegant spinning palace
of glass and chrome dominates, with a character all its own.
d’Ulisse in patria may be the most elusive of Monteverdi’s three
extant operas but the period instrument band, directed with flair from the
keyboard by Jonathan Cohen, leaves us in no doubt that, even cut to some two
and a half hours, this is a masterpiece of great beauty and dramatic intensity.