Productions of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria which make the title character a returning war veteran, preferably one returning from a juicy topical war, are nothing new, and director Claus Guth doesn’t stretch the well-worn conceit much further in this listlessly vague staging for the Theater an der Wien. As quiescent as one of those art house flicks in which the camera lingers lethargically over the most banal images, Guth’s production presents Ulisse’s traumatic stress and Penelope’s melancholy as internalized conditions which show no outward physiological effects; indeed Ulisse is dead behind the eyes for the duration, shooting only a couple of hackneyed pleading glances at Penelope in the opera’s final minutes. Repressing what we are helpless to resolve may be psychologically plausible, but characters unable to show us what they are feeling and thinking makes for a long night of catatonic faces and static postures.
Musically things weren’t much livelier, with vanilla singing to match the vacant facial expressions. Delphine Galou went about Penelope with pleasantly earthy tone, but didn’t maintain so much as a fraction of the intensity she brought to the Act I lament, which built up to a powerfully sustained climax and showed her utterly disconsolate. Looking thoroughly in need of a hug for most of the evening, Garry Magee produced a steady and even sound as Ulisse, albeit one as pale in colour as his cheeks. His tone frayed when pushed and tuning was exotic on anything remotely melismatic, but otherwise he managed solidly. Telemaco is presented as a gap year backpacker, and Pavol Kolgatin’s earnest singing was certainly in character even if that did involve out-singing his father by some measure, most glaringly in their reunion scene.
Among the gods, Sabina Puértolas’ Minerva was easy on the ear, with bell-like and occasionally fruity tone, and of all the cast she handled Monteverdi’s stile concitato effects, particularly the rapid repeated notes, with the greatest aplomb. Eumete the shepherd is probably the most important of the minor mortal characters for his closeness to Ulisse, but here Guth chose to make him a comic foil – not objectionable in itself, though there must surely be a more original way to do it than dressing the character as a Tyrolean yokel. Marcel Beekman threw himself cheerfully into playing the fool, but the levity seemed out of place and in no planned or conscious way. The other gods included stentorian Theater an der Wien regular Phillip Ens as Neptune, but as with Penelope’s suitors and Melanto, her attendant (Katija Dragojevic), the singing was generally fine but lacked the vitality this music cannot really do without.
Conductor Chrisophe Rousset stuck to steady tempi for the most part and was only emphatic at the beginning, when a heavily accented pulse ran roughshod for a while over the harmonic colourings elsewhere in the bar. With writing this quicksilver – patterns don’t stay stable for more than a few bars before Monteverdi changes tack – it doesn’t take long for periodic rhythmic emphasis to sound wilfully strange, and here was no exception. Soon after, and going too far in the opposite direction, an undemonstrative mood came over Rousset and the playing came to imitate the inertness on stage, with a matching monochromatic tonal palette hampered only by the spinning out of ornamental material as delicately as possible. When Christian Schmidt’s turntable set, more dynamic than any of the characters, made one final rotation to reveal the gods as empty suits, I could only think of it as an unfortunate metaphor for this hollow production, which turned out a half-hearted effort both dramatically and musically.
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