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The Return of Ulysses

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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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 Ulysses.

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 Minerva. 

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.

Il ritorno 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.

- Simon Thomas


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