Benedict Andrews marks his ENO debut with a reworking of Monteverdi’s late and often derided opera, The Return of Ulysses. It’s an adventurous staging that delights in excess.
We join Ulysses (Tom Randle) at the end of his Odyssey, swept ashore ten years after the sacking of Troy. With the Sirens overcome, Hades traversed, and the Cyclops’ eye most thoroughly put-out, all that remains is to reclaim his household and kingdom from the parasites and freeloaders who are queuing to fill his conjugal bed.
Disguised as a beggar by the goddess Minerva (Ruby Hughes), Ulysses first assures himself of the loyalty of his steadfast queen, Penelope (Pamela Helen Stephen), before going on to exact his bloody and excessive revenge on her suitors.
Set in present day Ithaca and hinting darkly at the War on Terror, it’s a clamour of bangs and flashes, flying dinner plates and eroticism. The Return of Ulysses is delivered breathlessly – an achievement that owes much to the daring of designer Börkur Jónsson – but ultimately it takes on a little too much. The music cannot hope to keep pace.
The apparent quest to make Homer’s yarn speak afresh – and one senses that this is so much more about Homer than it is Monteverdi – has stripped the baroque masterwork of all historical context and, ironically enough, relevance. The music lingers on, like a beautiful dream, but it must feel pretty much like the proverbial bathtub, bereft of baby and water.
It would be unjust to claim that Andrews’ production is insensitive to the subtleties of the text, but the emphasis is too squarely put on the nuances of the juxtaposition of old and new. Stimulating and witty as these often are, technology and style do threaten to overrun the show.
For instance, the rhetorical value of the enormous screens flanking the stage is outweighed many times over by the fact of their sheer physical presence. The live-feeds may provide one or two powerful moments, but they are otherwise distracting in their close scrutiny of hairlines and complexion.
One can’t help but wonder if they are instead intended to compensate for the loss of visual depth that results from Jónsson’s extensive use of glass. The set effectively (or affectively, as Andrews would probably argue) compresses the theatrical space into two-dimensions, leaving only the odd board or two stage front for the performers to tread.
More worrying is that the use of video in The Return of Ulysses seems somewhat at odds with the ideas being explored. Whilst Ulysses is purported to be bringing the reality of war home – wearing, in the director’s words, “the shadow of death” – we are actively encouraged to experience this trauma second hand. Film is a fundamentally distancing medium, and enlarging and projecting the violence above stage serves only to diminish the human tragedy. It becomes a parody of itself, a fetish. It is one thing to flinch in the face of the Real, but quite another to be forced to look away.
That such prodigious energies have been spent in making this point makes failure all the more galling. The opera feels a little unfinished as a result, and lacks real emotional clout.