Three years ago the Royal Opera mounted its first ever staging of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse in north London. Sung in English and directed in-the-round by Michael Boyd, it was widely admired, and evidently regarded as successful enough for the company to have decided to return to the Roundhouse with more Monteverdi. As before, the production involves young performers, while the Early Opera Company supplies the orchestra, this time conducted by Christian Curnyn, but the results are nothing like as convincing as Orfeo was.
The Return of Ulysses is, of course, a very different kind of opera, written for a wider audience and a much larger venue. It’s an exploration of intimate, personal relationships – husband/wife, father/son – played out on a more discursive scale, and John Fulljames’s production never really manages to reconcile that ambiguity. With designs by Hyemi Shin and Kimie Nakano, the drama is presented on a circular walkway that slowly revolves, with the orchestra at the centre turning even more slowly in the opposite direction. But it commutes between vague time-travelling naturalism – breastplates and military fatigues for Ulysses and his son Telemachus – and something more elliptical and playfully abstract, so that bunches of white balloons, which the glutton Irus (Stuart Jackson) bursts so gleefully, stand for the flock of the shepherd Eumaeus (Mark Milhofer).
Roderick Williams and Christine Rice take the roles of Ulysses and Penelope, though on the opening night, Rice was suffering from a throat infection and could not sing, and walked through her role while Caitlin Hulcup sang, with great warmth and poise, from among the orchestra. It worked as well as it possibly could, but it was Williams who inevitably became the centre of attention, delivering every line of Christopher Cowell’s translation with immense care and an even, beautiful tone, in a quietly assertive performance.
- At the Roundhouse, London, until 21 January.