“As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’Gods; They kill us for their sport” – poor old Gloucester’s view is one often borne out in classical drama, and the story of Ulysses finds the hero torn between his own frailty and the might of the deities who control humanity; however, unlike the hero of King Lear, he is redeemed by the guardian power of Minerva, goddess of Learning. This innovative, superbly sung production won’t have you laid out in the aisle as the iconic Aix-en-Provence one directed by William Christie may have done, but its focus on the gods who rule its world is as cleverly achieved as its management of the interaction between the human protagonists is sensitive.
This was the fourth performance so the glitches which had marred the first night had clearly been ironed out, and the staging was confidently presented. There are so many ways to tackle those pesky gods – do you have them all in black and as unobtrusive as possible, thus pandering to distaste for the notion that there may be other forces at work in our lives beyond self-interest, or do you go all out and show them as vibrant entities? Tim Supple’s production, colourfully and elegantly designed by Sumant Jayakrishnan, opts for the latter, with the sung parts accompanied by ‘physicalisation’ – we especially liked Rachel Ní Bhraonáin’s Fortuna, insouciantly wheeling about on her bicycle, and Durassie Kiangangu’s predatory, agile Amor.
Those gods were finely sung, too, especially Paul Whelan’s magisterial Tempo / Nettuno and Emma Stannard’s youthful, feisty Minerva. The humans were cast from exceptional strength, with Paul Nilon and Anna Bonitatibus as fine a Ulysses and Penelope as you could wish for. Following the sad early retirement of John Mark Ainsley, it is now Paul Nilon who has taken on the mantle of Anthony Rolfe Johnson – and how very well he wears it. His voice may not have what you might call a honeyed tone, but it is nonetheless achingly beautiful and used with such understated ardour that it’s impossible to be unmoved when you hear it. Both his cries of ‘O fortunat’! O fortunat’ Ulisse!’ and his singing of the wonderful lines where Ulisse proves to his wife that he is indeed her returned spouse, brought tears to quite a few curmudgeonly eyes.
Anna Bonitatibus was a moving, dignified Penelope, giving a performance of noble restraint and sonorous tone which recalled Janet Baker’s great assumption of the role. She was intriguingly costumed, her ‘bandaged’ dress presumably symbolizing her closed-in life, which is loosened by her husband when he returns – a nice touch. The scene with Ulisse’s bow had her at its centre, very cleverly done as opposed to the more usual style where Penelope is a passive observer.
Supporting performances were exceptionally strong, with Thomas Elwin’s Telemaco and Ronald Samm’s Iro outstanding – the latter was a lauded Otello for Birmingham Opera in 2015, which gives you some idea of the level of casting here. Fiona Kimm was a nobly sympathetic Ericlea, her conflicted state wonderfully delineated in her aria, and although Nigel Robson was not in his best voice this evening he gave a moving, finely judged performance as Eumete. Donna Bateman and Gwilym Bowen were a feisty pair of lovers as Melanto and Eurimaco, and the ‘three suitors’ were vividly characterized by Robin Blaze, Harry Nicoll and Paul Whelan.
The musical direction is the chief joy of the evening; it would be hard to imagine better playing, in the ever-skilful and supremely collaborative hands of Robert Howarth, with the doyenne of lutenists Paula Chateauneuf on Chitarrone and Baroque Guitar and Pavlo Beznosiuk leading the Ritornello String Band with vibrant, often very moving accompaniment. Although the musicians were placed below the stage, it was still possible to feel, as one should, that the continuo was an intimate part of the action and that its commentaries on the emotions of the characters gave an added dimension to their conflicts and crises. Such care and expertise is the result of having an experienced singer of this repertoire in overall musical charge, and Michael Chance can feel justly proud of his achievement.