“Torna, deh, torna Ulisse” – twenty years into her husband’s absence, the refrain of Penelope’s plea for his return is a great operatic moment, a moment in which Monteverdi lifts us from the mundanity around us and makes us touch the sublime. Coming at the beginning of Act I of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, the inaugural performance of the new Grange Festival, Anna Bonitatibus hit the emotional bull’s eye.

Robin Blaze (Human Frailty) in the prologue © Robert Workman
Robin Blaze (Human Frailty) in the prologue
© Robert Workman

Before that, however, comes the prologue, in which gods of Time, Fortune and Love torment the spirit of Human Frailty (countertenor Robin Blaze). From the off, director Tim Supple puts us out of our comfort zone: a dinner-jacketed Blaze is pulled from the dinner-jacketed audience, to be stripped by the distinctly medical-looking gods, clad in a hospital gown and bound, spreadeagled, to a table: the singing gods are accompanied by physical alter egos, strange creatures on stilts, a bicycle and racing blades à la Oscar Pistorius. What Supple does not show – although the presence is palpable throughout the opera – is the invisible God of Bloody-minded Obstinacy, for it’s this deity that has enabled Penelope to fend off her suitors for twenty years. By the time we get to the end of the opera, three hours of music later, it is this deity that makes her acceptance of Ulisse so painfully slow: Supple and musical director Michael Chance (also the artistic director of the festival) get the pace absolutely right, dragging just enough to make the ending all the more joyous.

Robin Blaze (Pisandro), Anna Bonitatibus (Penelope), Harry Nicoll (Anfinomo) © Robert Workman
Robin Blaze (Pisandro), Anna Bonitatibus (Penelope), Harry Nicoll (Anfinomo)
© Robert Workman

The staging, by Supple and designer Sumant Jayakrishnan, brims with intelligent ideas, while remaining sparse: there’s never too much happening on stage to overly distract you from the words and music. To give just a few examples: there’s a constant reference to the winding and unwinding of threads; Penelope’s regal costume, farthingale style, is a masterpiece of garment engineering; Ulisse’s stoop and beggar’s rags, complete with scraps of bright green plastic bin liner, are superb; his transformation from beggar into his regal self is a brilliant coup de théâtre; a quirky touch is added by the collection of model sheep pushed on-stage by Minerva in her disguise as shepherdess, or the general weirdness of the racing-blade-sporting physical manifestation of Love. Most interesting of all is the way Supple integrated the surtitles into the performance, displaying them on the panels that are often moved around the set, in typography which is varied and constantly shifting to suit the mood. There are only a few misfires, most notably Minerva’s costume, which is more “pretty boho girl on a night out” than “imperious goddess”.

Emma Stannard (Minerva) © Robert Workman
Emma Stannard (Minerva)
© Robert Workman

It’s those mood shifts that make this such a great opera. Bonitatibus’s heart-breaking lament is followed by the sexiest of love scenes between Penelope’s servant Melanto and her lover Eurimaco, infused by the tension of the young couple being utterly unable to take their hands off each other, attractively sung and superbly acted by Donna Bateman and Gwilym Bowen to the accompaniment of the sweetest, most lilting of renaissance-style dance music: their “Dolce, mia vita” was another of those moments which touched the sublime. The tension of Ulisse’s appearance at Penelope’s court (in his beggar disguise) is utterly subverted by his hilarious fist fight with the suitors’ gluttonous sidekick Iro; the horror of the suitors’ slaughter is followed by more hilarity – with a sick edge – as Iro’s first thought is to bemoan the loss of his food supply.

Anna Bonitatibus (Penelope), Paul Nilon (Ulisse) © Robert Workman
Anna Bonitatibus (Penelope), Paul Nilon (Ulisse)
© Robert Workman

Michael Chance opts for a decidedly pared down orchestra: the four continuo players shoulder most of the work, with the intermittent addition of just five string players. It works like a charm: there’s plenty enough sound to fill the relatively small theatre, the sound never overpowers the singers and you get a real chamber music feel of everyone tightly together. And clever as the surtitling was, it didn’t stop excellent attention being paid to diction. Giacomo Badoaro’s poetry was clearly audible from almost everyone, and it’s worth listening to, full of elegant wordplay – the multiple rhymes with Ulisse in Penelope’s lament, the juxtaposition of proci (suitors) with porci (pigs) or some of the splendid insults being bandied between Ulisse and Iro.

In a big cast of many roles, I can’t name check everyone: Paul Nilon negotiates the big role of Ulisse with vigour; Emma Stannard makes a great entrance as Minerva; Thomas Elwin's Telemaco gives an electric account of his meeting with Helen in Sparta; Paul Whelan, in several roles, displays a smooth, good-sounding bass (albeit one that loses strength on the low Fs). My biggest plaudits of all go to the continuo players (who name themselves “the Division Lobby”, in a cute reference to musical divisions and today’s General Election).

Ultimately, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is the operatic opportunity to tell one of the world’s great stories. This production grabs that opportunity with both hands: a treat for early opera fans and a great introduction for those new to the genre.