The return of Ulysses – Review of Opera Atelier production

By James Karas

Opera Atelier has brought back its
2007 production of Monteverdi’s The
Return of Ulysses and applause is
due to its co-artistic directors Marshall
Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-
Zingg. The production is mostly wellsung,
colourful, finely directed, and
gorgeously danced as well as judiciously
edited to keep the running time under
three hours.
Librettist Giacomo Badoaro relied
on a fairly conventional retelling of the
second half of Homer’s Odyssey where
the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus, to
the purists), after many adventures,
returns to Ithaca. He finds his kingdom
in disarray with his wife being pursued
by the local nobility who are eating him
out of house and home, as they.
We can assume that he will
eventually get rid of the men who lust
after his wife, reestablish his authority
and find connubial bliss after a twenty
year absence but with Neptune (bassbaritone
Stephen Hegedus) and so
much else against him, he has his work
cut out.
Prologue, please. With the stars
shimmering in the firmament in the
background, we see the personification
of Human Frailty (tenor Isaiah Bell),
Time (impressive bass-baritone
Douglas Williams who also plays the
aggressive Antinoo, an early version
of Trump), Fortune (soprano Carla
Huhtanen who also does fine work as
the treacherous servant Melanto), and
Love (soprano Meghan Lindsay who is
even better as Minerva). The latter three
deride Human Frailty and claim that they
control people’s fate who are weak in
any event. Pynkoski directs the scene
intelligently by having the taunters be
quite active rather than singing with their
feet screwed to the stage floor. A good
start.
The opera proper begins on a
high note with Penelope’s (splendidly
sung by mezzo-soprano Mireille
Lebel) passionate recitative lamenting
her husband’s long absence. The
statuesque Lebel gives us an outpouring
of emotions and display of strength that
entitle her to be called The Temple of
Chastity.
The scene moves from the palace
with its grand columns to the sea where
we see the wild waves painted in the
background. From there (to do justice
to the sets) we move to the countryside
where the faithful shepherd Eumete
(tenor Aaron Sheehan who sings well
and don’t tell me he looks too young for
the role – this is a myth, not CNN). The
goddess Minerva descends from the
sky in grand style. The sets by Gerard
Gauci are colourful and appealing and
strictly seventeenth century impressions
of Ithaca, the gods and the sea with
no attempt, quite rightly, to strive for
representations of mythical Greece.
Pynkoski uses twelve singers for the
twenty characters that appear in the
opera and that is achieved by doubling
the roles taken by many of the singers.
Tenor Krešimir Špicer gives us a wellsung
Ulysses. Pynkoski opts for a human
and unheroic take of the opera and it
serves us well. We appreciate Ulysses’
cunning and there are no heroics
even in the stringing of his bow or his
execution of the suitors. Lajeunesse-
Zingg choreographs the scene so that it
runs smoothly without any unnecessary
heroics. Špicer’s Ulysses is a subtle and
human hero and we are most happy
about his return.
With a large cast, some unevenness
in the singing is inevitable. Some could
not project as well as we would have
liked and other were not at their best.
But they were they exception to an
otherwise superb cast.
Lajeunesse-Zingg has as usual
choreographed dance sequences for
The Artists of the Atelier Ballet in which
the dancers perform with grace, agility,
lightness and sheer beauty.
Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design
was uneven. She seems to like
darkness and shadows but we want to
see everything all the time. Penelope
should not walk in and out of shadows.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
is conducted by David Fallis. The only
score of the opera is unhelpful as to
orchestration and Fallis has opted for a
small orchestra. We may be attuned to
larger ensembles but some authenticity
is appreciated.
The Return of Ulysses by Claudio
Monteverdi, presented by Opera Atelier,
opened on April 19 and will run until April
28, 2018 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge
Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com