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