Having mounted Orfeo in 2004 and L’incoronazione di Poppea in 2017, Pinchgut Opera have now completed the trio of Monteverdi’s surviving stage works with the present production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. While it may be the least popular of the three, Il ritorno is nonetheless a fascinating work, the one in which artistic director Erin Helyard feels that “the humanity of the characters is most fully realised”. As always in Pinchgut productions, the musical dimension of the production was historically informed, although the decision of recutting the three-act original into two unequal parts was presumably taken for pragmatic reasons (and resulted in an over-long first half). The continuo sound was tastefully adapted to the specific dramatic situations, with standard harpsichord and organ supplemented by theorbos, lirone and Baroque guitar as the occasion demanded.

Fernando Guimarães (Ulisse) © Brett Boardman
Fernando Guimarães (Ulisse)
© Brett Boardman

Where the musical dimension was located in authentic 17th-century practices, the staging was liberated from such considerations. Unlike Pinchgut’s recent Poppea, which was updated to a contemporary gangs-and-drugs milieu, director Chas Rader-Shieber and designer Melanie Liertz opted for a more abstract narrative space. The back of the stage was hung with long white silk drapes, which occasionally were rucked into columns or pulled back to reveal a black wall with a star chart. Costumes were a mixed bag: Giunone had a peacock feather collar (the sacred bird of this goddess) and Minerva (goddess of war as well as wisdom) was clad in a mythologically-appropriate bronze cuirass, but the suitors were dressed in modern tail coats with bare legs, presumably for comic effect.

The opening tableau saw a sumptuous table loaded with objects familiar from still-life paintings, with hourglasses and skulls acting as symbols for memento mori and the passage of time. These were quickly removed, and thereafter props were relatively few. A clear plastic table served as the vehicle for the divinely assisted journey of Telemaco, and for the palace scenes. Most of the scene changes were accomplished by means of Nicholas Raymont’s well-considered lighting design. The slaying of the suitors involved only imaginary arrows, leading to theatrical collapses with red handkerchiefs symbolising the wounds.

Jacob Lawrence (Giove) © Brett Boardman
Jacob Lawrence (Giove)
© Brett Boardman

Magnus Tessing Schneider’s programme note laid out a persuasive historical case for why various singers were given multiple roles. The prologue featured abstractions (Human Frailty, Love, Fortune, Time) who could double with characters in the main plot, but even within the Ulysses story a singer was likely to appear in more than one guise. Sometimes the roles aligned dramatically: Jacob Lawrence was both Eumete, Ulysses' swineherd who is a vocal supporter of his long-lost master, and Giove, the chief deity who urges Neptune to have mercy on the beleaguered Ulysses. Others were paired through contrast: Catherine Carby played Ulysses’ wife Penelope, whose name has become a by-word for fidelity and constancy, and in the prologue Human Frailty.

Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães in the title role was an impressive actor; he sang well throughout, although over the course of the evening the range of tone colours he produced felt somewhat limited. Carby was a powerful presence, conveying dignity through her demeanour and a beautifully focussed tone. The delicious false relations she produced at cadences on a few occasions testified to her stylistic awareness.

One of the stars of the evening was Pinchgut newcomer Lauren Lodge-Campbell (Minerva among other roles), whose purity of tone was a real delight throughout, but who also demonstrated her coloratura chops in “Fiamma è l’ira”. As Cupid and Melanto, Roberta Diamond projected powerfully and exhibited agile passage work.

Nicholas Tolputt, Douglas Kelly, Wade Kernott and Catherine Carby © Brett Boardman
Nicholas Tolputt, Douglas Kelly, Wade Kernott and Catherine Carby
© Brett Boardman

As the gluttonous comic relief Iro, Mark Wilde grew into the role, ending with his lengthy monologue where he provided the only on-stage reactions to Ulysses having slain the other suitors. “On stage” is actually a misnomer: he came running down the aisle and had some by-play, both musical and dramatic, with Helyard’s continuo group before deciding to commit strategic suicide rather than face the pangs of hunger.

Of the three importunate wooers, Douglas Kelly was the pick, his pleasing tenor sound cutting through more than the counter-tenor of Nicholas Tolputt or Wade Kernot’s bass. The latter had little projection in his lower register, even though he managed to reach a spectacular low D in one number. Both Brenton Spiteri as Ulysses' son Telemaco and Lawrence as Eumete/Giove were strong vocal presences.

As ever, the Orchestra of the Antipodes provided stalwart support, whether in supportive continuo roles or in the more concertato places in the score. In an interesting departure from convention, the orchestra members and director were dressed in white, as if anticipating the happy ending of the story.

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