Like Monteverdi’s Renaissance Venetians, the ancient Greeks were celebrated as adventurous mariners, navigating the oceans to find profit, pleasure and power – and sometimes violent danger – abroad. Homer’s Odyssey revolves around one of the seafarer’s most pressing fears: the implacable fury of the sea. Neptune’s curse drives Ulysses across the ocean for another decade after ten years’ hard campaigning at Troy, finally returning home “a broken man, all shipmates lost, to find a world of pain at home” (in Robert Fagles’ sensitive translation). Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto for Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria remodels Homer’s story as an eternal dialogue between Time, Fortune and Love, arguing about who holds most sway over human frailty (embodied on stage to mourn the human condition), much as L’incoronazione di Poppea is framed as a cosmic contest between Fortune, Virtue and Love over who has the most power in our destiny.

Benedict Nelson (Ulysses) and Katie Bray (Minerva) © Richard Hubert Smith
Benedict Nelson (Ulysses) and Katie Bray (Minerva)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Director James Conway takes a characteristically thoughtful, clear-eyed approach for English Touring Opera which allows the powerful emotional dynamics of this story to take centre stage, the broken royal family of Ithaca at first floundering without each other, then struggling to come to terms with their eventual reunion, so long-awaited that it is difficult to truly accept. Lighting by Mark Howland (includes rippling watery projections onto sheets of marble) adds colour and texture to takis’ simple, elegant set, which juxtaposes stepped levels of sand with wooden bow frames to indicate, variously, ships, waves, and bows at the crucial moment of Ulysses’ fateful contest with the Suitors, balanced by a large marble wall whose panels open to reveal doorways at different levels. Red ropes and a few simple props complete a scenery as eloquent as it is economical. Symbolic stage language abounds: Time and Fortune pour sand and gold on the floor, while Human Frailty is caught in a net; a suitor offers Penelope a gold heart in a glass box. Combining these touches with Anne Ridler’s clear English translation, structured by regular rhyme, the opera comes across with wonderful clarity and directness, aided by superb diction across the cast.

Katie Bray’s exceptional Minerva glows with unnerving energy, Monteverdi’s stratospheric demands delivered with calm panache by her tireless, lyrical soprano. Bray’s gifts as singer and actress allow her to achieve a playful, slick and severe delivery which is ideal for the goddess of wisdom and war, the greatest of all immortal strategists fighting for her favourite hero, in a fabulous performance. Benedict Nelson’s luscious baritone makes for an exceptionally expressive Ulysses, bearing his weight of suffering yet fired by inexhaustible cunning to his ultimate victory. The chemistry between Minerva and Ulysses is the perfect balance of deference and delight on his side, command and affection on hers. Nick Pritchard’s masculine, youthful Telemachus is believable and endearing, Pritchard’s skilful acting and bright tenor making the Prince a compelling hero on the cusp of maturity, yet not so serious as to miss a chance for gentle hilarity as he unveils a disabling schoolboy crush on Helen (to his mother’s fury).

Carolyn Dobbin (Penelope) and Benedict Nelson (Ulysses) © Richard Hubert Smith
Carolyn Dobbin (Penelope) and Benedict Nelson (Ulysses)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Much comic energy comes from Adam Player as Irus, Homer’s nastily territorial palace beggar reimagined by Badoaro as a gluttonous, obsequious courtier, loyal only to his own appetite, who in Ridler’s translation gets a Wildean sparkle in repartee. Player’s comic instinct is intelligent and darkly witty, producing a genuinely unsettling effect as he runs from corpse to corpse after Ulysses’ revenge, bewailing the dead suitors, wondering where his next free feast will be coming from now before committing suicide.

Carolyn Dobbin makes a queenly, cerebral Penelope, moving from haughty grief to bright animation or bitter frustration. Dobbin’s dusky mezzo sounds eminently suited to her music, particularly beautiful in soft, languorous moments. Andrew Slater gives us a sour take on Time, a grim and sonorous Neptune (in battered, gilded oilskins) and a macho, ageing Antinous, all nicely observed and individually characterised, with Slater’s bronzed bass-baritone unendingly generous and accurate.

<i>Ulysses' Homecoming</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Ulysses' Homecoming
© Richard Hubert Smith

John-Colyn Gyeantey’s warm, charismatic and affectionate Eumaeus never fails to charm; Gyeantey is undoubtedly capable of far more than this small role allows him to show. Clint van der Linde’s supple countertenor and fine comic skills make an agreeable trio of Human Frailty, Penelope’s nurse Ericlea and the suitor Pisander. Robert Anthony Gardiner’s exceptionally gentle takes on Fortune and Eurymachus leave both in peril of vagueness, and clothes-fuddling stage chemistry with Martha Jones (playing Love, as well as the plotting maid Melantho, with a fresh and versatile soprano) never gets beyond inert. Nevertheless, Gardiner’s smooth tenor sounds lyrical and pleasing throughout.

The Old Street Band, conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny, produce a warm, accurate sound luxuriant with period textures from theorbos, recorders and harpsichord. Orchestra and cast both found increasing confidence, and pleasure, in the wonderful acoustic of Saffron Hall, making this leg of their tour a glorious beginning to Saffron Hall’s new engagement with fully staged opera: starting this well, they have set themselves (and others) a very high standard.