Opera for the ADHD generation

A thrilling production of Monteverdi's Ulysses by a first-time director.

Grinning wildly, a victorious Ulysses beckons a cameraman with his gun. Together they stalk the darkened house, searching out Penelope's suitors and dispatching them in a display of blood-fireworks that wouldn't disgrace Tarantino. It's legend, but not quite as we know it.

I must admit that my heart sank when, in the charged moments of silence as the lights went down for ENO's latest co-production with the Young Vic, a camouflaged survivor of Iraq or Afghanistan trudged his dusty way across the stage. It's a transposition we've seen before in the opera house; every costume department is currently awash with bullet-proof vests and burkhas - the corsetry and crinolines of our age. Yet when gimp masks and leashes made an appearance some minutes later, Benedict Andrews' new production began to reveal itself as something different.

The latest in a succession of first-time opera directors at ENO - Rufus Norris and Mike Figgis have recently taken their turn, with Terry Gilliam currently waiting in the wings - Andrews is also perhaps the most successful. Shaped by his time at Berlin's progressive Schaubuhne, his style is a coherent blend of psychological realism and stylised stagecraft. Symbols and doppelgangers jostle up against fried chicken and chrome interiors, a surprisingly natural fit for Homer's tale of petulant gods and godlike men.

Set up as a straightforward proscenium, the Young Vic's flexible theatre-space at first seemed under-exploited. When a cloth was pulled away to reveal Borkur Jonsson's glass-encased contemporary apartment, revolving gently to expose every marble-topped, monochrome inch to the audience's gaze, it became clear however that intimacy rather than immersion was to be the goal.

Two video screens flank the stage, intruding into any background action that might escape unnoticed and placing Penelope in a hellish Big Brother house: the sole contestant in a game of someone else's devising. It's all rather hectic - opera for the ADHD generation - but while Act I is sacrificed as setup, the emotional payoff in Act II is so astonishing as to obliterate memories of the process that brought us there.

Directed from the keyboard by Jonathan Cohen, Members of ENO's orchestra did their best impression of a period band (with a little help from some friends with theorbos and recorders) providing their most musically sensitive and tightly-focused performance thus far this season. If we didn't get quite the character I had hoped from passages of Monteverdi's orchestration then perhaps the challenging acoustic of the Young Vic was to blame. It certainly exposed the singers, giving Monteverdi's recitatives an unusual directness, more drama than music.

It was a space that worked well for Pamela Helen Stephen's Penelope, whose voice might be thin on colour but whose acting is beyond reproach. Shell-shocked as any battle survivor she moved stiffly around in her glass house, submitting with little resistance to the gropings and pawings of her trio of city-slick suitors. Tom Randle's Ulysses was on smoothest, soft-grained form. While baroque trills are purely ornamental, Monteverdi trills at their best can be descriptive. Randle proved himself the most heartbreaking master of these, weaving their panting gasps intelligently into his narrative; a duet with faithful retainer Eumete (Nigel Robson), all line and intensity, proved only the warm-up for the almost unwatchable tenderness of the final reunion scene.

It was an evening of fine tenors, with Samuel Boden distinguishing himself among the lovers and Thomas Hobbs all poised lyricism as Telemaco, Ulysses son. Katherine Manley was a delight as pert maid Melanto (whose breathless "For the skill of your silver tongue" was as neat as it was naughty) and Diana Montague brought all her experience to Ericlea, but I wasn't convinced by Ruby Hughes' Minerva. Pushed at the top and tending to blurt, a more controlled delivery might have given this schemer a power that brute force could not.

“Prima le parole, e poi la musica" ("First the words and then the music") was the creed by which Monteverdi composed. It's a philosophy that has been a gift to generations of directors, an invitation to (and justification for) subordinating any musical demands to the greater cause of drama. Andrews's production is all about the drama, the echoing story artists have so obsessively retold and reworked. Yet in neglecting the music, he has somehow made absolute sense of it. This is no production for opera purists, brutally cut and some of it barely sung, but it's as close as Monteverdi gets to Gesamkunstwerk , and all the inauthentic better for it.

The Return of Ulysses
Young Vic, London SE1

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war