It’s a July evening and at Wolf Trap’s colonial-era barns, Claudio Monteverdi’s 1640 opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses) is being performed. Despite the historicity of the place, the opera and its performance by the Wolf Trap Opera company has a decidedly contemporary feel. Everything the modern viewer loves — romance, deceit, unmitigated anger, sex, violence, slapstick comedy and shameless sexual puns — is right there in this evocative and entertaining Ulysses.
Before the opera began, large blinking eyes stared out at the audience, projected on a backdrop of metal screens. This eerie display is soon revealed as a manifestation of a larger theme in the play. As the prologue commences, Human Frailty personified takes the stage lamenting his suffering. He lifts his hands, displaying his palms which are each marked with what looks like the Egyptian Eye of Horus. He clenches his open palm closed, as blind Love, blind Fortune and Time frolic behind him, asserting their control. Sight, and the lack thereof, perception and deception all have important roles in the work as it unfolds.
As the first act continues, so too does the suffering. Sweet, sweet suffering. Ulysses wife, Penelope (powerhouse mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton) is disconsolate, waiting but not hoping for the return of her husband. This is communicated not only by her doleful notes, but by her neo-gothic look. Red dreadlocks hang down around her intensely made-up face; her black cape cascades to the floor.
Hers is just one of many other-worldly, almost surreal costumes in the performance. Case in point, Nettuno (Neptune) and Giove (Jupiter) appear next to express their annoyance with humans, wearing various adaptations of a black vinyl toga. All of the gods are painted with glittery body paint, a la The Tin Man, and none more impressively so than Miverva (soprano Ava Pine). The visual presentation overall, and Minerva in particular, call to mind hipster music videos like MGMT’s Time to Pretend. Set to the delicate strains of a baroque harpsichord, there was something so satisfactorily post-modern about this Ulisse.
Throughout the performance the stage backdrop changed fluidly from one weather phenomenon to another to suit the oscillating moods — from menacing thunder and black churning waves to psychedelically-colored skies and a back-lit fiery blood-red. It was powerful and complementary without being obtrusive.
I digress. Back to the action: Ulysses finds himself back on the shores of Ithaca and runs into Minerva, who advises him to disguise himself as an old man and return stealthily to observe the faithfulness of his queen and the absurdity of her suitors. Apparently Ulysses’ idea of a disguise is, in this case, a pair of fishnet stockings which he pulls over his face. This works well enough for him, as even his son Telemaco is fooled. The only one not fooled is Penelope’s nurse (Rena Harms, who, consequently, is made up to look like a Vulcan from Star Trek) but it takes her 2 acts to pipe up about it anyway.
I would feel less comfortable about being “funny” here (all this talk of Vulcans and Goths, this is Opera, after all!) except for the fact that the production was itself hilarious. Aside from the prescribed comic relief of fattypants “glutton” Iro (the impressive tenor Diego Torre), Director James Marvel has also made especial fools out of the three suitors Pisandro, Anfinomo and Antinoo. Dressed like they fell into some sort of Pirate/Guido American Apparel, the suitors are a highly enjoyable chorus of buffoonery. At one point, Antinoo (Carlos Monzón) who is sporting a leather and rhinestone jockstrap/pouch, collects a piece of Penelope’s hair and stuffs it in said pouch for safekeeping. It almost seems discordant with the production’s playful side when the trio is rightfully slayed by Ulysses’ Golden Bow.
This was my first trip to the Barns and is by far the most intimate experience I can imagine with Opera. The Barns are small, as barns are like to be, seating no more than a few hundred people. Those sitting in the front rows could reach out and touch the orchestra, part of which was seated snugly in the front left corner of the stage. You could practically see the tears in the ever-grieving Penelope’s eyes. Compare this to sitting in the upper-most rows of the Lincoln Center for a Metropolitan Opera performance in New York and you tell me what makes for a more romantic experience.
This 2009 Ulisse is comical, it resonates and its age is no impediment to its relatability. It had enough vocal talent for ardent opera lovers and enough theater for someone who might otherwise balk at the genre. And while Ulisse itself may be hundreds of years old, the cast–culled from the Opera Company’s Filene Young Artists program–is relatively young, comprised of very impressive rising opera singers. Though he dons graying hair for the title role in Ulysses, Armstrong is just 29 years old. The Young Artists are resident for the summer season, which continues on Saturday with The Pursuit of Love and concludes with a one-night performance of La Bohème at the Filene Center on August 7.
Photos courtesy of Carol Pratt.