ENO’s Return of Ulysses – along with the return of several singers

Ruby Hughes and Pamela Helen Stephen. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s always good to find a show full of singers you’ve known and admired over the years but haven’t seen (or maybe noticed) for a while. And such a show, for me, is Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses currently playing in an ENO production at the Young Vic.

Staged by Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, it homes in on the historically abiding image of women who stay behind, waiting, while their men go off to war. Penelope – the queen of Ithaca who stays behind while Ulysses besieges Troy – becomes a contemporary figure, living alongside her suitors and servants in an interior-designed glass box like a penthouse show-flat whose transparent walls provide not only claustrophobic containment but total exposure. Most of the cast are visible most of the time. And as they go about their business the tension builds of a community in limbo, waiting for something to happen.

It’s a well-presented image, the glass box sharply lit as it revolves. And it becomes a scene of devastating carnage when when Ulysses does finally return, slaying the suitors in a bloodbath worthy of Sam Peckinpah. The warrior has brought the war back with him; and the reconciliation with his wife is cautious, awkward, suddenly erupting into sexual frenzy.

As a study in the loss and rediscovery of relationship, it’s powerfully observed, with outstanding performances from a cast that doesn’t always radiate period-specialist refinement but can certainly sing. And a fair number of the cast are singers I used to see all the time in leading roles for UK opera companies, but haven’t recently.

There’s Diana Montague (who plays the old nurse as a much put-open servant endlessly clearing up the royal household mess. Moral of this staging: people who live in glass boxes need round-the-clock window-cleaners), and Nigel Robson is handsomely shaggy as the old shepherd Eumaeus. Tom Randle is the living presence of a wary, war-toughened, understandably psychotic Ulysses forcing himself back into the business of normality after twenty years in uniform. And Pamela Helen Stephen is an inspired choice for Penelope, playing the role as a woman frozen in indecision, stifling her sexual need, and at the same time holding up magnificently under the constant, close-in exposure to which the show subjects her.

With fine support from younger voices like Katherine Manley as the erotically liberated servant Melanto, Thomas Hobbs as a vocally exquisite Telemaco, and Ruby Hughes as a high-profile Minerva, it’s a cast that doesn’t always radiate period-specialist refinement but can certainly sing.

Equally impressive is the small accompanying band of period instruments mixed with ENO string-players. Rich in texture, engagingly energised, it’s led from the harpsichord with a buoyant grasp of Monteverdi’s dancing rhythms by Jonathan Cohen: a conductor recently emerged out of the rank and file of period instrumentalists, and going places.

With such a strong show, it’s a shame there are only eight performances; but if you can catch one before they end on April 9th, do try. You won’t be disappointed. Shows start early, at 7pm. Booking details: www.youngvic.org

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