Review: Ulysses’ Return & La Calisto, English Touring Opera, Snape Maltings, Nov 11-12

Ulysses’ Homecoming, staged by English Touring Opera at Snape Maltings

Ulysses Homecoming, staged by English Touring Opera at Snape Maltings - Credit: Archant

For their autumn visit to Snape English Touring Opera brought two works from the era of Venice’s rise to operatic prominence.

Monteverdi’s ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming’ deals with the final part of Homer’s epic poem where the wandering and suffering hero finally returns home to his loyal but frustrated wife. Ever determined to probe the fundamentals of an opera and convey them to performers and listeners, director James Conway set the relationship and eventual reconciliation between Penelope and Ulysses squarely in his sights and created a production of exceptional clarity and distinction. This was opera for all seasons and all centuries, set against a simple, yet elegant background that allowed an unforced delivery of timeless and universal truths.

Once again ETO assembled a strong vocal team. Katie Bray made a strong impression as Minerva, her powerful, lustrous tone and quicksilver activity perfectly suited to a goddess of cunning. Nick Pritchard was accurate, clear and youthful as Telemachus, John-Colyn Gyeantey imparted a touching devotion and insight as Eumaeus and Adam Player played the role of the gluttonous Irus to the full, as it were. Those combining two or more roles deserve particular mention; Andrew Slater (Time, Neptune and Antinous), Robert Anthony Gardiner (Fortune and Eurymachus) and Clint Van der Linde who made the smoothest of gender leaps from Human Frailty and Pisander to the nurse Ericlea, while Martha Jones nicely combined the roles of Love and Melanto. The Old Street Band played with enthusiasm and sensitivity under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny who maintained an unerring pulse and momentum throughout. In the end, though (quite literally as it happens), this opera is all about Ulysses and Penelope and their long-delayed reunion. Both Benedict Nelson and Carolyn Dobbin performed with outstanding assurance and insight throughout and the closing bars as they finally come together were as credible and moving as I have witnessed for a long time.

Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto is from the same period as Ulysses’ Return – their respective premieres about a dozen years apart – but they are quite different works. While the latter is predominantly serious, La Calisto, particularly in the first two acts, has plenty of fun with disguises and mistaken identities as Giove (Jupiter) disguises himself as Diana in order to seduce the attractive nymph Calisto while Endimione, an earthbound stargazer falls in love with the (undisguised) Diana, goddess of the moon and hunting. As in the previous opera there is a fixer, this time Mercurio, played with conviction and some swagger by the colourfully clad Nick Pritchard. George Humphries gave an appropriately regal touch to Giove and his clarity of diction (not reproduced by everyone) was especially welcome as surtitles of the text were not provided (although good scene summaries kept the audience informed). Paula Sides was, perhaps, more imposing than your average virgin nymph but she sang with absolute security of pitch and timbre and Catherine Carby as Diana, in or out of disguise, was always convincing. Katie Bray, Susanna Fairbairn and Tai Oney slipped easily between their various roles and there were characterful contributions from Adrian Dwyer, Peter Braithwaite and John-Colyn Gyeantey. The set by Takis and lighting designer Mark Howland initially seemed over-elaborate but in practice reflected the post-conflagration setting rather well and provided neat opportunities for moments of fun. Multi-talented conductor, director and co-author of the English version of the text, Timothy Nelson, was central to the elan and success of the performance and the Old Street Band responded with crisp and nuanced playing.

Once again English Touring Opera have provided an object lesson in demonstrating that artistic success is not incompatible with financial economy; indeed, what they have achieved with these works on a minute fraction of what some other opera companies spend is little short of miraculous.

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Gareth Jones

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