How should opera, and particular operas, be made ‘relevant’? And what kind of relevance, anyway, should they try to achieve? The questions are too big to answer in a brief review, but Birmingham Opera Company’s largely magnificent production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria heroically attempts to cope with them. Using the highly individual space of Planet Ice, they divide the building down the middle with a floor-to-ceiling wire fence with a few doors in it, and for the 110-minute-long Act I have the audience standing on one side, while the performers appear at various points on either side, and assorted people, including some audience members, have light shone in their faces and are pushed through gates, etc., thus imbuing us with some sense of what it is like to be a refugee or asylum seeker — and providing us with an experience which is related to that of Ulysses in the opera. That, I think, is Graham Vick’s concept.
It seems to me that the analogy is fairly weak, and that the opera, here renamed Ulysses Comes Home, is really about the problem, on Ulysses’ side, of finding himself a stranger in what he has longed to return to, his homeland, while Penelope is so addicted to patience and waiting that she is unable to see her life in any other terms. Since asylum seekers are looking for a new home, and refugees trying to come to terms with exile, the issues seem, though related, not to be illuminated by showing us the ghastly paraphernalia of contemporary bureaucratic practice in relation to the homeless.
That apart, the evening was a magnificent and even overwhelming success.