ENO's latest première matches a young theatre director with a reputation for cutting-edge drama to one of the earliest operas in the repertoire, in the less-than-conventionally-operatic surroundings of London's Young Vic. It's an improbable combination, and I wasn't at all sure what to expect.

Tom Randle as Ulysses and Ruby Hughes as Minerva © Johan Persson
Tom Randle as Ulysses and Ruby Hughes as Minerva
© Johan Persson

I'm a great fan of Monteverdi's music: he has a command of vocal line second to none, and I love his ability to inject energy into a piece and follow it up at will with humour, languor or sadness. The performance didn't disappoint. The ENO put together a band of a dozen or so players, conducted from the harpsichord by Jonathan Cohen, who did a great job of keeping the music lively and interesting, with many delights of texture. Amongst several renaissance/baroque instruments (harpsichords, theorbos, flute à bec ,etc) was a real obscurity: the lirone, a low-register stringed instrument with a flat fretboard. The instrumentation worked wonderfully: the many continuo instruments produced great propulsive drive for the upbeat dance-like numbers, or a solid ground above which the more plaintive vocal lines could float.

The singing quality was mixed. There were many great moments - my personal pick as highlight was the duet between Tom Randle's Ulysses and Thomas Hobbs as his son Telemachus, along with the interplay between Nigel Robson's faithful retainer Eumeaus and Brian Galliford's wastrel Iro, as well as Iestyn Morris's singing of the prologue character of "Human Frailty." But diction was a constant problem. The ENO bravely decided to do without surtitles, but no-one seemed to have told the singers: I was trying quite hard, but I was losing anything up to half the dialogue. And some of the voices lacked the power to keep up with the high energy coming from the orchestra. But even if it was all less than perfect, Monteverdi's music and sense of drama still shone through; it was a rewarding evening's music.

From his introduction in the program, it is clear that director Benedict Andrews focused on the alienation of the circumstances (to borrow a term from Brecht): Penelope is in an impossible situation of being unable to get on with life but unable to mourn, Ulysses is broken by war and a stranger in his own country. Broadly, his modern-dress production was effective in putting this across, comic relief sequences worked well and the acting performances were solid. In particular, Tom Randle's powerful physique gave good credence to the violence of the war-hardened Ulysses. But there were plenty of oddities. The production centred around Penelope's "living space," a sort of uber-posh modern bedsit with glass sides, mounted on a turntable which revolved frequently. The majority of the foreground action happened on the stage in front of the rotating turntable; usually, there was some action happening within the apartment at the same time, which was relayed to a pair of giant screens occupying each side of the airspace above the stage.

There were a lot of attempts to distract you from looking at the singers. The giant screens, when they weren't showing Iraq war footage, spent large tracts of time on a close up of Pamela Helen Stephen doing a GPE (Joan Sutherland's term for "general pained expression") to present Penelope's anguish. Alternatively, if Stephens was singing at the front of the stage, the screens showed Ruby Hughes as Minerva doing a GPE, or gesturing erotically or having sex with the suitors. I'd have been happy if someone had pulled the plug on the screens. Also, I utterly failed to understand several other details of the production. Why would Minerva, who is proverbially chaste and totally in control of events, be either pained or lascivious? Why were Penelope and Minerva dressed identically in slinky black outfits - was I missing some unexplained duality? Why did Minerva smear blood on her hands and face and, later in the second act, pour a bucket of white talc over herself? Why were food fights going on in the revolving apartment while important action was happening in the stage in front? I'm sure that Andrews had concepts behind all these things that I was intended to "get", and I felt uncomfortable that I wasn't getting them.

It took a lot of conscious effort to block out these distractions. For the most part, I succeeded, and hugely enjoyed Monteverdi's fabulous music and the overall power and feel of the drama.