The Return of Ulysses | Pinchgut OperaLeft – Fernando Guimarâes and Catherine Carby. Cover – Nicholas Tolputt, Douglas Kelly, Wade Kernott and Catherine Carby. Photos – Brett Boardman

Towards the end of his life Monteverdi wrote two operas which inhabit utterly different moral landscapes. The Coronation of Poppea’s title character is completely amoral woman who uses her sexuality as a tool to achieve ultimate power as empress, a trajectory made possible in Nero’s Rome by the absence of any ethical compass whatever. In The Return of Ulysses, by contrast, Ulysses’ wife Penelope is the epitome of a faithful woman, whose fidelity during Ulysses’ 20-year absence is ultimately rewarded by reunion with her husband.

Despite this, the parallels between the operas are many. Both open with prologues in which three gods set up the ethical discourses which dominate the operas. These prologues are followed by monologues about impossible return – Ottone to Poppea, and Ulysses to Penelope. Both close with meltingly beautiful love duets, Poppea with Nero scandalously sensual, and Ulysses with Penelope an ideal of marital love. But their similarities serve to point up the vast gulf between their subjects, and in particular to highlight how Monteverdi’s amazing repertoire of expressive musical devices is deployed with a fidelity to the emotional core of his texts, a fidelity which is fundamental to his musical aesthetic.

There are very few people in this country who fully understand this aspect of Monteverdi’s music, let alone who can embody it in performance. Erin Helyard’s achievement is a penetration of the score profound enough to allow Monteverdi’s astonishing capacity for translating human emotions into music – comparable only to Mozart’s – to shine in all its glory. This penetration extended even to the ornamentation he shaped with all the singers, which was never “ornamentation”, applied because that is stylistically appropriate, but which always enhanced the emotional meaning of the text.

The result of this was a performance which moved the audience profoundly. The two Shakespearian recognition scenes – Ulysses, first with his son Telemachus, and then with Penelope – cannot but delight an audience as much as anything in Tosca or Rigoletto. But much more subtle is, for example, the effect of Ulysses' deceptions, guided by his protective goddess Minerva, on each of the other characters, whose musical responses to these deceptions were carefully distinguished from one another by Helyard. He writes in the program that he considers Ulysses the opera of Monteverdi in which “the humanity of the characters is most fully realised”. This performance demonstrated that down to the last detail.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes, smaller than usual, teemed with continuo instruments; cello, gamba, two lutes, two harpsichords, harp, and organ. These provided inconspicuous but tasteful variety to the accompaniments to the recitatives. Particularly felicitous was the use of the organ to close soft cadences at the end of arias.

Chas Rader-Shieber’s staging is much sparer and more suggestive than the staging used by Pinchgut for Poppea in which the action was transposed holus bolus to King’s Cross. Though brilliant, this staging sometimes got in the way of the music, something which never happened with Ulysses. Melanie Liertz’ design was consonant with this too. Everyone (including the orchestra!) was dressed in white, colour being used for symbolic rather than dramatic purposes – the beggar’s brown costume, Minerva’s gold breastplate, the suitors’ black hats. This approach places the responsibility on the music, the acting, and the text for weaving the magic of the opera. The result here was, perhaps paradoxically, an evening of theatre on the highest level.

Fernando Guimaraes is magnificent as Ulysses. He and Catherine Carby as Penelope were the singers most perfectly fused with their roles. Not a single note they sang sounded in any way external to the drama of their changing situations. Both roles are demanding, Ulysses’ for its variety, Penelope’s for its austerity, and their performances were consummate.

Pinchgut operas are often countertenor-fests, but Ulysses is a tenor-fest. The opera demands at least five tenors (depending on role-doubling), and here all are excellent. Mark Wilde harnessed a great variety of tessitura and dynamic in the service of his almost Pythonesque realisation of the comic character Iro, which is a sort of combination of Bacchus and Falstaff. Brenton Spiteri's light and flexible voice was ideal for the young Telemachus, and Douglas Kelly portrayed the vile suitor Eurimaco with a menacing self-adulation supported by a hint of steel in his voice. My personal favourite, however, apart from Guimaraes himself, was Jacob Lawrence, who sang Jove with a clarity as radiant as his costume, and whose duet with Ulysses, in the role of the shepherd Eumete, was an astrally high point among the many gorgeous duets.

Monteverdi must have known at least one bass singer with an impressively deep voice, for whom he wrote the role of Charon in Orfeo and Seneca in Poppea. In Ulysses there are three such roles, all probably intended to be taken by the same singer. Wade Kernot, had the sonorous low D’s required particularly for the role of the god Neptune. Lauren Lodge-Campbell sang the soprano role of Minerva with a golden, unforced certainty that matched her breastplate, and the part of Penelope’s maid was sung limpidly and liquidly by Roberta Diamond.

But over the whole opera stands the towering figure of Penelope. Her opening monologue is in the style of the lament, a genre which Monteverdi virtually created by the stellar success of the lament in his previous opera Ariadne, which spawned countless imitations in the first half of the 17th century. Catherine Carby sang this with the strength and restraint that marked her character throughout, up until the final scene. She is firm but careful with the royal suitors, (who are spoilt upper class brats who trash her palace), using her warm mezzo voice in a calm controlled way with a complete absence of showing off.

The last act of the opera contains a psychological truth of Shakespearian depth. Peneplope has suffered her husband’s absence with courage and fortitude. When he finally returns, she finds that the 20 years of suffering are so embedded in her psyche that she cannot let it all go and rejoice, as in the “lieto fine” of a fariy-tale. Only when Ulysses tells her an intimate detail which only he could possibly have known does she finally melt. This resistance, caused by an egioc self-identification with her suffering, make the joy of the final reunion all the more poignant, and Carby’s singing of this act, with its suppressed passion, is on a level of intensity comparable with Isolde in the first act of Tristan.

Pinchgut Opera is a national treasure. This wonderful opera is hardly known in Australia, and to have it so completely brought to life is a gift of enormous proportions. I heard many in the audience say they would go to another performance in this season.

Pinchgut Opera presents
The Return of Ulysses
Claudio Monteverdi

Director Chas Rader-Shieber

Venue: City Recital Hall Sydney
Dates: 13 – 19 June 2019



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