Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses is evenly balanced between its principals: it could equally have been entitled “The Fortitude of Penelope”. So it was a disappointment when Christine Rice, was unable to sing the role at the Roundhouse last night, only able to walk the role. Caitlin Hulcup made a good fist of singing from the pit – remarkably so, given the announcement that she had learned the role over the weekend – but inevitably, the performance was compromised.

<i>The Return of Ulysses</i> © ROH & Roundhouse | Stephen Cummiskey
The Return of Ulysses
© ROH & Roundhouse | Stephen Cummiskey

Perhaps Rice’s vocal absence spooked the orchestra, because the playing was decidedly lacklustre. The ingredients for good Monteverdi playing were there – a fine sounding set of continuo instruments, and players clearly comfortable in the genre – but Christian Curnyn failed to conjure up variety of dynamics or rhythm. For sure, there’s a lot of lament music in this opera, but there’s so much else: we need to hear bounce and joie de vivre in the interplay between the lovers Melanto and Eurymachus, thunderstruck awe from Telemachus and Minerva, radiant joy when Ulysses realises that the sand he is lying on is that of his homeland. With everything reduced to a sort of plaintive elegance, it made for a long musical evening.

The Royal Opera’s first collaboration with the Roundhouse, Orfeo in 2015, was a success due to its energy and vivid use of the space. Although, on paper, this repeated much of the formula, the reality was sadly different, with many production choices misconceived. Unfortunately, at the top of my list of ideas that shouldn’t have made the cut is the overall shape, with the orchestra seated at the centre of the Roundhouse and the action taking place on a doughnut-shaped rotating ring, the colour of raw concrete, around its outside. Since the ring was less than a couple of metres wide, this meant that acting was effectively limited to movement in one dimension. With few props, mostly dark costumes that looked inspired by the army surplus stores in nearby Camden Market and unremittingly dingy lighting, only one word could be used for the staging: drab.

Roderick Williams (Ulysses) © ROH & Roundhouse | Stephen Cummiskey
Roderick Williams (Ulysses)
© ROH & Roundhouse | Stephen Cummiskey

The occasional flash of cheap gold space blankets and the acting direction did little to spice things up: Roderick Williams’ Ulysses spent most of his time cringing or lying on the floor. It’s correct for Ulysses to be doing this when in his “old washed up man” disguise – but there was little change at the point when Ulysses reveals himself to be the returning hero. The lack of variety and invention extended to most areas of the acting direction: in an opera so rich in opportunities for comic relief, you know you’re in trouble when the biggest laugh of the evening is reserved for the sound effect of baaing sheep which accompanies Eumaeus.

The Return of Ulysses, to state the obvious, involves a storm-tossed character washing up on a Mediterranean beach, and director John Fulljames duly makes the mental leap to other such storm-tossed characters, namely migrants from Syria and elsewhere in the current crisis. But the narrative of this opera has nothing to do with helpless, dispossessed migrants – there’s only one migrant, and he is anything but helpless. The sight of Penelope in an apron handing out bread and water to a chorus of migrants was therefore embarrassingly irrelevant. Now don’t get me wrong: the migrant crisis is a terrible situation full of stories which deserve to have a politically charged opera written about them, and I would be thrilled if the Royal Opera chose to commission such an opera. I just find it an embarrassment to have an unrelated theme shoehorned into Monteverdi in this way.

Tai Oney (Peisander) and Chorus © ROH & Roundhouse | Stephen Cummiskey
Tai Oney (Peisander) and Chorus
© ROH & Roundhouse | Stephen Cummiskey

There was plenty of quality in the cast of singers: Williams has a cultured, smooth baritone, and I’ll pick out Francesca Chiejina as a vivacious, clear-voiced Melanto, David Shipley giving a strong, earthy bass as the suitor Antinous, Mark Milhofer as a cogent Eumaeus and Susan Bickley, with perhaps the best vocal timbre and variation of all in the minor role of Eurycleia. But vocal performances were compromised by the stage design: with characters often singing while walking around the doughnut-shaped stage (or the stage moving underneath them), voices tended to come and go as one was looking either at a singer’s front or their back: the amplification that was so successful in Orfeo did not do enough to mitigate this effect. Williams suffered particularly in this area: one of his great characteristics is subtlety of dynamics, which simply can’t work if his voice keeps vanishing.

The Return of Ulysses is packed with wonderful music and this production does, at least, give us the chance to enjoy Monteverdi’s compositional genius. But with so many ill-advised choices, it does little more. I’m disappointed.