O Fortunat! O, O, Fortunat’ Ulisse! That most moving of phrases, uttered when the finally returned Ulisse realizes that his reunion with his wife and kingdom will finally happen, went for nothing in this production, because (a) They were lost to half the audience, since the singer’s back was to us, and (b) they were sung in an English translation. In the programme, the musical director says that “…anything lost from the Italian is more than compensated for by the audience getting a closer understanding without the need for surtitles.” A noble sentiment, but why then were surtitles present, with many of the audience glued to them?
Curmudge over. There are some great vocal performances here, and it’s worth going just for them. Neither Roderick Williams nor Christine Rice / Caitlin Hulcup (the former acting, the latter singing from the pit owing to Rice’s throat infection) has the sheer driven intensity which Paul Nilon and Anna Bonitatibus provided at the Grange Festival in Summer, but Williams especially sings with beautiful tone and fervent engagement. Christine Rice and Caitlin Hulcup make for a formidable pair; the latter was a superb Idamante at Garsington in 2016, and her noble, passionate singing here will surely add to her growing reputation.
The smaller parts are exceptionally well cast, with the Suitors as fine a trio as any house could muster. David Shipley was familiar from his beautifully sung Night Watchman in the ROH Meistersinger in 2017, and his richly compelling tone again gave continuous pleasure. Tai Oney and Nick Pritchard were similarly convincing. Andrew Tortise’s Eurymachus and Samuel Boden’s Telemachus provided much fine singing and committed characterization. Mark Milhofer was a moving and very engaged Eumaeus, and Susan Bickley as Eurycleia acted and sang with all the aristocratic phrasing and complete assumption of the role that we have come to expect from her.
Francesca Chiejina was a lively Melanto, and Catherine Carby overcame her daft costume to sing a feisty Minerva. Stuart Jackson has impressed at Glyndebourne, and here he seemed ideal casting as Iro – not because he’s on the portly side but because he can present an unattractive character whist still singing beautifully. The ‘Chorus’ was a community ensemble, and whilst this may be a noble idea – and they certainly sang impressively and gave their all in terms of acting – it really does not fit with the narrative to make them refugees. The whole point is that Ulysses, like Idomeneo, is the solitary survivor of the sea journey here, and it adds nothing to the story to infuse it with a current humanitarian disaster. The same goes for Penelope and Eurycleia doling out bread and water.
Apart from those aspects, the production is simple, focuses on the central dilemmas and is very finely accompanied by Christian Curnyn and the orchestra of the Early Opera Company, playing with unforced nobility in the more solemn parts and sparking verve in the more light-hearted ones. Is it moving? Not really – it won’t knock you out like the Aix one under William Christie, nor will it move you to tears like the Grange one – but it’s a very well sung, finely played, beautifully lit (Paule Constable) production which would be an ideal introduction to Monteverdi.