Review: The Return of Ulysses (Roundhouse)

Sublime music-making in a flawed new production of Monteverdi’s opera

Roderick Williams as Ulysses in The Return of Ulysses (ROH/Roundhouse)
Roderick Williams as Ulysses in The Return of Ulysses (ROH/Roundhouse)
© Stephen Cummiskey

As in-the-round goes, there’s nowhere rounder than the Roundhouse. And director John Fulljames embraces the venue’s circularity in a patchily effective staging of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, given here Anglo-titled and sung in Christopher Cowell's translation. It’s an unusual language choice for the Royal Opera, but perhaps they weren’t aware quite how effective the surtitling would be in such a space.

Fulljames is a most frustrating director. This is the eighth of his shows I’ve seen and they’ve all had one thing in common: a core idea that looked good on paper but flaked in execution. The Return of Ulysses is given a dynamic presentation – a perimeter stage revolves in one direction while a centrally placed orchestra rotates more slowly in the other – but once the novelty wears off it presents no end of problems.

Take sound. Audibility is a serious issue when singers are facing away from most spectators in the wraparound audience, therefore Fulljames makes discreet use of body mics to cast the voices more evenly. So why stage it in the round in the first place, unless the opera demands it? (It doesn’t.)

Perimeter stagings also presuppose plenty of movement to fill the eyes, but Monteverdi’s 'dramma per musica' tends to the formal with a succession of internal monologues, arias and duos. It needs more than this production's gratuitous tandem ride to bring it to life. Instead, the set-piece bow-stringing contest is staged with scant imagination, while in their final reconciliation Ulysses and Penelope face away from each other and the vital thread of connection is snapped.

'A showcase for some of Britain's finest'

The fact that this last nugget of Monteverdi worked at all was down to three magnificent singers: Roderick Williams, adding a commanding Ulysses to his bursting portfolio of recent work, Christine Rice, who acted bravely and with total commitment as his despairing wife despite being rendered voiceless by a throat infection, and her fellow mezzo Caitlin Hulcup, who sat with the orchestra and sang a keening Penelope pitstop. (This exceptional Australian mezzo should be a star by now. With luck this showing will give the powers-that-be a prod.)

Time to pause and give credit where it’s due. The Royal Opera regularly gets called out for overlooking homegrown talent, but The Return of Ulysses is a showcase for some of Britain’s finest. Susan Bickley, Mark Milhofer and Andrew Tortise sang impeccably and acted their socks off, as did Catherine Carby as Minerva, the armoured goddess whose gilded costume puts the breast into breastplate.

Stuart Jackson transcended an odious fat suit as the parasitic Irus to deliver his thankless role with uncommon beauty, and Nick Pritchard – Telemachus in ETO’s recent staging – was one of three outstanding Suitors (David Shipley and American countertenor Tai Oney were the other two).

The Telemachus here, Samuel Boden, was touching, vulnerable and puzzlingly beheadphoned, but why the objectification? Someone must have looked at the handsome young tenor and said 'he’s buff; let’s show that off', because he spends an inordinate amount of time topless. He’s worth better than that.

An outstanding cast, then, and one that's beautifully steered by Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company orchestra. As well as featherbedding the singers with lyrical warmth these expert musicians let Monteverdi speak to us like a contemporary. Indeed, on an aural level this was a haloed evening, so it's all the sadder that theatrically it was flummoxed by the format. But there’s no getting round that.

The Return of Ulysses runs at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, until 21 January..