Marcelo Alexandre as Ulysses and Rommie Rochell as Penelope. Photo by and © Reinout Bos

Even to non-classics scholars I guess Homer’s Odyssey is fairly well known. What is perhaps less well known is Montiverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria or The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland. First performed in Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1640, it is considered one of the first operas as we know the form today. So it was an interesting and brave choice for this (almost) fully-staged production, performed by singers from the Dutch National Opera Academy, the master’s programme in opera performance offered by The Royal Conservatory of The Hague and the Conservatorium of Amsterdam, supplemented by students from both conservatories at Amare in The Hague. 

So, just to recap for those of you who have forgotten their Greek mythology.  Il ritorno d’Ulisse is based on books thirteen to twenty-three of Homer’s Odyssey. In it Ulysses returns home from the Trojan War after an absence of twenty years. He is washed up alone on an unfamiliar shore and slowly works his way back to Ithica where his wife Penelope has all but given up the wait. While our hero has been away she has attracted a number of suitors who have all but taken over his kingdom. During the ensuing drama Ulysses sets out to kill them all, return to conjugal bliss and re-establish his authority. What’s not to like?

This version, using Elena Kats-Chernin’s adaptation which was composed in 2012, originally for the Berlin’s Komische Oper, reduces the role for the Gods, eschews abstract mythology and presents the characters as real people in real situations – although we don’t get much of that sort of thing down our way.

Musically this production was excellent with some very fine singing with everyone giving a considered, mature performance. It is perhaps unfair to single out individuals but I have to say that Marcelo Alexandre as Ulysses had a fine voice and performed beautifully as did Rommie Rochell as Penelope. The orchestra, under the confident and fairly laid-back baton of Sasha Scolnik-Brower, played very nicely although the scoring was a little unusual. In the main, on-stage orchestra I counted nine cellos, two harps, two double-basses, a handful of woodwinds and brass, two grand pianos and percussion. On the other side of the stage, on a rostrum swathed in white cloth (see later), was a quartet consisting of another cello plus guitar, a mini organ and a baroque theorbo. It was this quartet that actually provided most of the music. So, vocally and musically this production was hard to fault and all the singers and musicians should be congratulated and applauded.

However, visually it was not so successful. It had taken its inspiration from the Bulgarian/American artist Christo whose act was to wrap up huge things like bridges, buildings and bits of landscape in cloth tied up with rope. His most famous exploit was wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin in 1985. You don’t hear so much of him now, mainly because his work was, by definition, temporary and ephemeral and therefore no longer exists.

Those responsible for the décor and presentation of Il ritorno were obviously fans. One of Christo’s pieces was to wrap a stretch of rugged coastline and the director and designers saw the link and used this imagery for their production. Consequently, everything was covered and tied up in white cloth, including for much of the time some of the singers. For me, sad to say, it didn’t work and visually this production was a mess. The costumes looked as though the singers had been sent blindfolded into the rejected costume store to see what they could find. It was just too ambitious given the limited resources and funds that I imagine were available. If you don’t have the means or ability it is usually best to keep these things simple and, in this case, to rely on the music and singing rather than try for over-elaborate and unnecessary scenery and props. The visuals in this production didn’t actually spoil it for me, but they came pretty close.  Michael Hasted    26th June 2024