With a cast of over 20 parts, here sung by 18 soloists, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland made a bold choice by staging Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria to showcase the current students at the Opera School. Continuing the “Opera Up Close and Personal” series, this was performed in the tiny opera studio to an audience of around 100, creating an intimate evening of early music.

© Kenneth Dundas
© Kenneth Dundas

Monteverdi wrote the opera, the first of three major works for the Venetian court, in 1639, towards the end of his life. After initial performances, it vanished from repertoire and its authenticity was challenged in 1922 on the publication of a rediscovered score, but it is now taken as genuine, and this performance in Glasgow was a fine chance to experience one of the earliest surviving operas.

The opera is a faithful adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, and we join the story as Penelope, Queen of Ithaca waits faithfully for the homecoming of her husband Ulisse. As it has been 20 years since his departure to the Trojan war, the certainty of his return comes more into question, and suitors have turned up to try and win Penelope’s hand. When Ulisse blinded the one-eyed Polyphemus, the giant’s father Nettuno was so enraged that he put a curse on Ulisse, preventing him going home, but nevertheless a ship does arrive at Ithaca and a sleeping Ulisse is laid out on a remote shore. The gods are not happy.

Head of Opera Timothy Dean conducted a lively nine-piece period-instrument ensemble peppered with three early music specialists, from one of two harpsichords. Two theorbos and a Baroque guitar complemented the period strings of cello, two violas and two violins, providing a sound palette of contrasting variety, essential to sustain interest in a long evening’s tale.

The studio space and on-stage band dictated an economical set, and designer Hazel Blue’s minimalist ropes, forest leaves and use of a few key props was enough to convey the story, complementing the atmospheric lighting by Christopher Gowling. Blue’s distinctive, modern-day black-and-white costumes for the gods were set against 1930s country-house tweeds and formal evening wear for the mortals.

Given the small space and the light early music accompaniment, it was left to the singers themselves to carry the evening, and we were not disappointed with a successful casting of both major and minor roles. Welsh mezzo Eirlys Myfanwy Davies gave a strong, sensitive central performance as the faithful Penelope, her smooth, honey-like voice mourning her situation. She ably fended off her ardent suitors in pink hunting jackets (nicely blended performances from Marco Di Chio, Jonathan Cooke, and particularly bass Domenic Barberi), and challenged them to string Ulisse’s bow. Elsewhere, Ayaka Tanimoto and Kenneth Reid were Penelope’s romantically attached butler and maid, trying desperately to convince Penelope that Ulisse was lost and that, for the sake of happiness in the palace, she should take a suitor.

The fate of the mortals lay with the gods, though, and Nettuno’s authority (sung with a suitably rich bass by Arshak Kuzikyan) was carried down the chain of command to Minerva, a sprightly fixer, delightfully sung by soprano Hazel McBain who appeared initially disguised as a shepherd boy, and who transported Ulisse’s son Telemaco back from Sparta to Ithaca to aid his father.

The three suitors were slain by Ulisse as he alone was able to restring his bow, Swedish tenor Andreas Backlund in fine form. In a wonderful aside to the main story, the palace glutton Iro mourned that his source of food from their patronage would leave him starving – an amusing caricature from well-padded tenor Joseph Oparamanuike.

While opera plots often ask us to stretch our beliefs, so does Homer. When Ulisse had removed his beggar’s disguise and told Penelope who he was, she refused to believe him, nor even when her nursemaid Ericlea spotted Ulisse’s distinctive scar made by a boar. However, with Nettuno grudgingly won round, it was only when Ulisse described the unique marital bedspread that Penelope finally recognised her husband. Twenty years away building the wooden horse and generally adventuring must indeed have taken its toll.

With so many parts to fill, this early opera was a hugely ambitious choice for the Conservatoire. The student company kept this lengthy opera moving with some splendid storytelling in Mark Hathaway’s production, which demonstrated that less can be more.

****1