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

Getty
Show Hide image

Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times