Welsh National Opera’s new production of Monteverdi’s finest surviving opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, is an almost unqualified success, and one hopes that the five cities that it tours to after leaving the company’s home in Cardiff will give it the reception it deserves, so that WNO’s cutting back of its tour next spring will be only a temporary measure.
The opera is directed by David Alden, whose L’incoronazione di Poppea eight years ago was annoyingly gimmick-ridden. Il ritorno has its fair share of contemporary producers’ clichés, including Ulisse in a wheelchair for much of the time — I thought that one had really been exhausted with Glyndebourne’s lethal Idomeneo. You can’t say the setting is contemporary, because there isn’t a setting, just walls, sometimes, and the occasional large, unclassifiable object, with modern chairs. Costumes are trans-period, the majority of male ones being what used to be called spiv suits. None of that matters, for the action, the relations between the characters are true to the dramatic core of this marvellously moving and often funny tale.
Last year in Birmingham we saw how versatile a drama it is, under Graham Vick, in Ulysses comes home, where the titular figure was played by Paul Nilon, as he also is in Wales. What a superb artist, and how underrated, he is. No one could play Ulisse better, nor convey so much during the huge periods of silence that he spends while the other figures wrangle. His plangent voice, stricken demeanour and apparent terminal weariness make him even more moving than the wife he is coming home to. Sara Fulgoni, who plays Penelope, has just as much dignity, and sings with an attention to Badoaro’s excellent text which suggests very careful coaching from the conductor, Rinaldo Alessandrini. Perhaps her eventual melting, the strangely reluctant acceptance that the stranger really is the husband she has been pining or mourning for for so long, could have been a little more overtly expressive. There was no doubting the warmth of welcome from his old servant Ericlea, sung with tremendous ardour by Elizabeth Vaughan, now 69 but in formidable voice. The casting throughout was from strength. Neil Jenkins as the glutton Iro showed how, in Monteverdi as in Shakespeare, repulsive self-indulgence and conceit can also elicit an audience’s warm affection.
In this work it is the gods who, even more than in Homer, are merely absurd and fickle, while the mortals whose fortunes they so enjoy undermining are, even at their silliest or most sinister, aware of the extreme fragility of their states and their endeavours. This extraordinary realism, which contrasts with the trite underlying moralism of Orfeo, helps to make this one of the greatest of operas, indeed one of the supreme dramas, chastening and elevating at the same time. At no point did Alden sabotage this work’s depth, even if one can envisage a more beautiful scenic realisation of it.
It would be foolish to make big claims for Gounod’s Faust, even when it is as superlatively performed as in the current revival of David McVicar’s 2004 production at the Royal Opera. It is far better now than it was on either of its first two outings. A performance as wholly enjoyable as this has to be a difficult balancing act: the music must be taken with the utmost seriousness by the best available singers, but the production needs to acknowledge that the work is no serious contribution to a theme just as archetypal as Ulysses’ return: the urge to recapture the vitality and curiosity of youth and the price which is worth paying for that, supposing it can actually happen. Gounod, despite his Mors et Vita pretensions, is a mere melodious charmer, with an intermittent dramatic flair, and McVicar has his measure, though I don’t fully understand the play-within-a-play gambit.
It was a relief to find Angela Gheorghiu back on form after the Tosca trauma, though she hasn’t the big guns for Marguerite’s climactic moments, and swallowed the crucial triplet in her gorgeous tune in the exciting final scene each time it came round, sharply reducing the excitement. The two male leads are thrilling, though their French provides the evening’s main laughs: Piotr Beczala is a heady tenor, and Orlin Anastassov shares with his fellow Bulgarian the great Boris Christoff not only his accent but also his pitch-black but lovely voice. The casting is from strength all the way, and has raised my hopes for the new season.
British Youth Opera’s Eugene Onegin, staged for three performances in the tropical Peacock Theatre, was very strongly cast from a vocal standpoint, with some highly promising voices on display. The staging was traditional, apart from sheets of paper raining down on Tatyana to remind her that Life is not Literature. With salient exceptions, the standard of enunciation was appalling — I couldn’t hear one word of the key dialogue between Madame Larina and Filipevna which opens the work and unobtrusively gives us its subject matter. And though the Tatyana of Katrina Broderick was mainly very well sung, with odd harsh notes, her appearance undermined any credibility the work can have. Whatever may once have been the case on this matter, it is now, surely, as important to have visual as vocal plausibility.