Since its inception in 1972 the Royal Northern College of Music has gained a reputation for excellence in the field of opera, having often staged extraordinary productions of repertoire familiar and forgotten. Including everything from Britten’s Gloriana to Carmen and from Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover to Barber’s Vanessa, the RNCM has made the courageous leap into the mid-17th-century with Monteverdi’s Greek epic Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, having never attempted the work before.

Sean Boyes as Giove © Paul Cliff
Sean Boyes as Giove
© Paul Cliff

Monteverdi was a composer of influence and importance as great as the gods and goddesses of his operas; just as they are the foundation stone in the countless Greek and Roman myths from which hundreds of painters, sculptors, composers and story-tellers across the centuries have woven their creations, Monteverdi built on the foundations set before him to develop an art form that has since yielded some of the most enduring musical exquisites. Though he cannot quite lay claim to having composed the first opera (this laurel-wreathed distinction is claimed by Jacopo Peri and his Dafne of 1597 and Euridice of 1600), Monteverdi certainly wrote the most familiar saplings in this new style, developed towards the end of the 16th century and throughout the 17th century.

That the RNCM should choose something so specialised initially unnerved me as I toiled with the idea of how students would cope with an opera that many of them might never have considered – I don’t personally believe that the majority of young singers look towards such early works for motivation in a singing career, preferring instead to dream of the days when their Tristans, Violettas, Wotans and Mimìs make the headlines. Furthermore, the problem of instrumentation puzzled me: Would they used augmented forces in order to satisfy the number of students? Does the College have a battery of theorbo or lute players? Nonetheless, with my initial reservations neatly formed in my head and unuttered prior to performance, all doubts were scattered before a note was heard.

The open stage with curtain raised revealed a palace backing onto the sea, the gentle ebb and flow of the quiet waters gently beating against the walls. The night’s sky was highlighted by an enormous moon, giving the whole auditorium a sense of lunar tranquillity, whilst at either side of the stage a small stack of oversized books would later serve as the podium of gods – a fitting dais for fictitious mischief. When turned, the palace walls on a revolving platform revealed a hollow cavern and some steps carved into a creamy-white rock. For this alone the performance deserves commendation – Lara Booth and John Bishop’s combined image of ancient Ithaca was enchanting. Furthermore, Booth’s costume designs belied the fact that this was a conservatoire performance and not a professional production. I feel it is worth highlighting that a 21st-century opera production that benefits the story in the traditional sense, without becoming slave to any bizarre ideological message of particular significance to the producer themselves, is now refreshing in its simplicity.

The RNCM Opera Ensemble led by Roger Hamilton, it transpires, was a mixture of students and early music specialists – the most familiar name amongst the 11 assembled players being continuo expert Paula Chateauneuf. The remainder of the ensemble, comprised of a string quintet, two harpsichords, three theorbos and Baroque harp, blended excellently, giving a performance of informed style and delicate nuance.

Ultimately it was the singers that stole the show, but these young students were fortunate in having both an excellent production and well-versed orchestra to support them. Ulisse incorporates 20 named characters as well as two small choruses in which all performers worked hard, though the principal singers fitted their roles wonderfully. Ulisse, sung by Daniel Shelvey, possesses a warmly resonant baritone that was well suited to our hero – clear, distinct diction and a velvety tone allowed the audience to hang on every word. Similarly, Heather Lowe gave a stirring performance as the heartbroken but unforgotten wife, assuming the character of Penelope sensitively, with a dramatic sense of loss and regret. Of the many named minor roles, Adam Player offered light relief in the shape of his comical caricature of the pompous over-confident glutton Iro, and Adam Temple-Smith’s Eurimaco was a surprisingly mature, rich-toned lover for a second-year undergraduate.

The RNCM has produced a remarkable show and this performance was testament to the possibilities of excellence achieved in supporting young singers – if these results are the fruit of just one UK conservatoire, it bodes well for the future of opera singing in the professional opera houses.

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