Rough edges make Opera Omnia’s “Ulysses” a mixed bag of Monteverdi

Wed Sep 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” was performed Tuesday night by Opera Omnia. (painting c.1597, artist unknown)

Opera Omnia’s new production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses is a prime example of the promise and frustration facing Baroque opera lovers in New York City.

The promise is that of great works—and Monteverdi’s surviving operas are some of the finest in the repertoire—as yet unburdened by the accretion of a mindless tradition about how they should appear on stage. The frustration comes from  the fledgling and variable level of musicians and performers in the area.

New York lags far behind Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area,  London and Paris when it comes to drawing and developing musicians proficient in the vocal and instrumental styles that make Baroque and Classical era opera so moving, charming and expressive. Regular visits from the likes of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants tease audiences with their brilliance and beauty, but Christie has been at this for decades, while Juilliard’s degree in Baroque performance was only inaugurated in 2009. Eventually, there will be a strong pool of such musicians here, and the only way for that to happen is through productions like Opera Omnia’s Ulysses, which offers positive and negative lessons.

It’s Ulysses, not Ulisse, because the performance is in English, in a terrific translation by Anne Ridler, originally done for the English National Opera. It’s a great pleasure to hear these words in consistently fine and clear articulation from the singers, because Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto is excellent, full of drama, humor and solid characterizations. Monteverdi matched this with his inimitable combination of grace, urgency and intimacy.

The singers in the production, presented at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, mostly honored these qualities; the musicians in the chamber ensemble that accompanied them, led by Avi Stein at the harpsichord, mostly did not. The performance got off to a shaky start when the violins botched an entrance, and that may have undermined the leads, Jesse Blumberg as Ulysses and Hai-Ting Chinn as Penelope, with their opening duet hazy in vocal timbre, drifting phrases and effortful arpeggiations and grupettos.

Originally, the opera does not begin with such a duet, but this production has cut and rearranged the work heavily, reducing the acts from five to two, eliminating the choruses, several characters, and several scenes. The duet for Eurimaco and Melanto, who don’t appear, is the one sung by the principles. While not for Monteverdi purists, the end result is successful, a streamlined narrative that expresses the drama and ideas of the story and effectively establishes the love between the main characters before we are are at the beginning of the opera (which is actually the conclusion of Ulysses’ story).

The singing improved, although Chinn was undermined in some recitatives by persistently uncertain intonation from the lutenists. It was a humid night and stuffy in the theater, which didn’t help, but the uneasy pitches impeded the harmonic motion, fundamental to the drama of the music, and too often left Chinn untethered.

Baroque instruments can be finicky, and things like this happen, but it wasn’t an isolated problem. The ensemble (two violins, an organ, cello, harp, and two lutenists playing theorbos, one doubling on Baroque guitar), only fitfully played with the kind of rhythmic drive and clean attack that is essential to Monteverdi, and few displayed the sense of style in phrasing and ornamentation that is second nature to the top ensembles and conductors.

Ulysses, the hero of the story, was also the hero of the performance. Blumberg’s singing when the character wakes up on the shores of Ithaca (“Dormo ancora, o son desto?” in the original), was excellent—confident, forceful, expressive. His attitude seemed to galvanize the entire performance, which picked up a great deal of energy that lasted mostly all the way through the end. Blumberg is not a prototypical Baroque singer, his style is heaver in vibrato and less supple in dynamics than often heard in period performance practice, but his command of the technical elements was complete and his phrasing clear and musical.

So began a run of fine singing throughout the cast that continued to the final note. Karim Sulayman and Joseph Gaines were standouts as Eumaeus and Irus, Owen McIntosh was also fine as Telemachus. The suitors Peisander, Amphinomous and Antinous were sung well and performed superbly by Nicholas Tamagna, Brandon Snook and Richard Lippold. Tammy Coil and Joe Chappel as Minerva and Neptune got off to the same sluggish start as the rest of the company, but were full of pep and aplomb after intermission.

The cuts make the denouement after Ulysses strings the bow and slays the suitors welcomely quick, but the highpoint of the opera was Irus’ aria prior to his suicide. Gaines was gripping, and after his death, the air once again went out of the orchestra. But by this time, the singers could have carried the opera off a cappella.

The production by Crystal Manich and Wesley Chinn is lean with simple costumes and a few props. The action moves across a series of stark platforms, and the larger- scale narrative by the gods is conveyed through silhouette projections. It’s creative, refreshing and it works, making this Return of Ulysses two-thirds of a success.

The Return of Ulysses will be repeated Wednesday and Thursday  at the Baryshnikov Center.

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