English National Opera joins with the Young Vic to present Monteverdi’s seventeenth century masterpiece. Relating the final chapters of Homer’s Odyssey it sees Penelope remaining faithful to Ulisse throughout his twenty year absence from Ithica, and explores what happens when he finally returns.
Director Benedict Andrews sets the opera in modern times with Penelope occupying a swish apartment whose glass walls enable us to peer in voyeuristically as it revolves. If this present day setting does not feel conducive to telling a classical tale of loyalty and fidelity, this is compensated for by the visceral thrill it provides. Actions occurring outside the walls are overseen from within, and the glass is soon dirtied with finger marks, hurled food and drink, and finally blood.
The staging also highlights the cost at which Ulisse’s and Penelope’s reunion comes. As they sing of their reawakened love, the audience is left acutely aware of the extortionate body count that has seen total innocents dispatched alongside petty ‘sinners’. Key to the tale is the notion that the mortals fall below the radar of the gods’ care, and that the gods are not subject to human laws or punishments. In the second half, however, an action from the goddess Minerva reveals how even she has lost control of the proceedings and her emotions.
The cast certainly has its fair share of gems. Ruby Hughes’ Minerva has a sensuous presence and proud sense of superiority, before frailty overcomes her. Tom Randle is strong and secure as Ulisse, while Thomas Hobbs as his son reveals a fine tenor voice. Diana Montague and Nigel Robson also excel as Ulisse’s nurse and loyal shepherd respectively.
The racy staging does not always allow for quiet contemplation of Monteverdi’s wondrous score, but Jonathan Cohen leads the orchestra well and rarely will a night at the opera feel quite as dynamic as this.
Until 9 April (eight performances) with a start time of 19:00. Tickets: 0207 922 2922 or from the Young Vic website.
Photo: Pamela Helen Stephen's Penelope gazes on Ruby Hughes' Minerva, © Johan Persson