English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire – Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria / Ulysses’s Homecoming – Benedict Nelson, Carolyn Dobbin, Nick Prichard, Katie Bray – directed by James Conway; conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – Opera in a Prologue and three Acts to a libretto by Giacomo Badoaro after Homer’s Ulysses [sung in an English version by Anne Ridler, with English guide-titles]

Ulysses – Benedict Nelson
Penelope – Carolyn Dobbin
Telemachus – Nick Pritchard
Eumaeus – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Antinous / Time / Neptune / Phaecian – Andrew SlaterEurymachus / Amphinomous / Fortune / Phaecian – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Pisander / Human Frailty / Ericlea / Phaecian – Clint van der Linde
Irus – Adam Player
Melanto / Amore – Martha Jones
Minerva – Katie Bray

The Old Street Band
Jonathan Peter Kenny

James Conway – Director
takis – Designer
Mark Howland – Lighting Designer
Bernadette Iglich – Movement Adviser

Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran

Reviewed: 15 October, 2016
Venue: Hackney Empire, London

English Touring Opera's production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patriaPhotograph: Richard Hubert SmithEnglish Touring Opera has woven magic from Monteverdi in a beautifully thought-through production.

The minimal designs by takis evoke a simplified classical setting as Gods and mortals battle it out to reunite Ulysses and his long-deserted wife Penelope. The sea is always present, the reminder of the aged Ulysses’s past trials; Mark Howland’s lighting delicately describes the elements as they are manipulated by Fortune, Minerva and Neptune.

The scene is set as Human Frailty is assailed by higher forces. The Gods are given declamatory interventions which frame the drama. Katie Bray was outstanding as Minerva, singing with panache. Penelope’s music is characterised by a mixture of introspective and melancholy recitative and arioso. Carolyn Dobbin’s rich mezzo took full advantage of expressive opportunities, singing with persuasion and personality. Her vivid-orange costume gave a visual signal of Penelope’s determination to remain true to Ulysses, keeping one step ahead of her many importunate suitors.

The God’s prediction of “agony, penury, misery” is reflected in a weary, battle-scarred Ulysses. Benedict Nelson’s baritone had reach, his sheer size adding conviction and presence to the aging hero.

English Touring Opera's production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patriaPhotograph: Richard Hubert SmithJames Conway’s production never drags dramatically and Jonathan Peter Kenny led an impassioned and energetic account of an extensive edition of Monteverdi’s score, which has been much-performed in adapted and shortened versions. The Old Street Band brought interplay with singers and illuminated the delicacy of the scoring.

Humorous episodes leavened the drama in Shakespearian style, with servants and nurses providing light relief from the emotional spectacle. The comic highlight was Adam Player’s Irus, the suitors’ minion, channelling the Prince Regent in scarlet, foppish splendour. Martha Jones and John-Colyn Gyeantey deserve mention for fine singing and acting. Nick Prichard was an affecting Telemachus, encompassing the follies of youth and also the dawning realisation of the return of Ulysses, his father.

The contrasts and perplexities of the human condition are movingly presented in this exemplary reading of Monteverdi’s masterpiece.

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