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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Don't Bet on the Sailor: Chicago Opera Theater's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (Return of Ulysses)

Last night, I ventured down a new path in my opera addiction. I'm not going to characterize Chicago Opera Theater as the hard stuff, given the choice ticket (orchestra level, about 4 seats in from the main aisle) that I got for about half the cost of one at Lyric. It's the reverse gateway opera drug or something. And this season is some kind of methadone clinic specific to my pal M, whose Nixon in China ticket I bought last year.

In true junkie fashion, I really only bought a ticket for Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria on the "well, I actively want to see the other two" principle. I'm glad I did for my sake, and I can also assure pal M that she did the right thing in opting out of the season entirely. Ulisse was the only opera in the season likely to tempt her, and it has two—count 'em two—countertenors and a pit full of period instruments, including two theorbos, a harpsichord, a gamba, and a violone, as well as violas and violins (no non-strings at all).

Although there are five acts, there was only one intermission in this production (after Act II), and the set is the same throughout. I'll admit that when I first walked into the theater, I thought that we were in for a raucous live-action version of Q*Bert. When I realized that the set designer was architect Raphael Viñoly, who perpetrated this on the University of Chicago campus (yes, pal M, I know you liked the palace, but I hate it more than the administration building and Pierce combined), I was prepared to be cranky about all things scenic.

The set was designed to represent the entire island of Ithaca, smaller exteriors on the island, and interiors of Penelope's palace as needed. The footprint of the Q*bert structure was probably between 15 and 20 feet square. The corner of its lowest platform hit downstage just a shade right of center. The three platforms adjacent to this were raised about 3 feet above it. Moving up and stage left, the the next platform was raised about 5-6 feet above and had two steps cut into it, upstage of that the platform was raised 3 steps above, and cutting back stage right, the next two probably had 4 steps up each, meaning that the highest part of the set (at upstage right) was about 20 feet above the lowest point. The three highest platforms were enclosed by railings, which was a great relief to my inner stage manager.

The highest platform and its nearest neighbor had enclosed spaces beneath them. The smaller, more centrally located of the two was fronted by a single door that hinged in the center and folded outward and the interior was painted blood red. This was the primary point of entrance/exit for most of the opera. The platform immediately in front of it had a central panel that slid back to form Penelope's bath (its interior was painted sky blue) and the cavern in the earth that appears to swallow up Ulysses in his beggar disguise (at which point the lighting design quite effectively masked the interior's intense color). The taller "closet" had two center-hinged doors meeting at the downstage corner, and its interior was painted pale orange. There was also a floor-to-ceiling support pole on this corner that would later be used to hang Ulysses' bow and a hungry Iro (I'm still not entirely clear on how the hanging was achieved).

The entire platform was surrounded by blue flowing fabric draped over a series of supports. This extended from the upstage wall where the supports were highest and sloped down to drape over the very edge of the stage. The fabric was made to ripple, either by the clever arrangement of fans or a mighty army of fast-moving stage hands darting about under there, further suggesting the sea surrounding the island. I can't remember what the real pit arrangement at the Harris usually is, but here, the cut out that contains seats that is visible in this photo was co-opted to accommodate the musicians. Its outline was transformed into the shape of a canoe and it doubled as the Phaeicians' ship. Just upstage of the pit there was also a trap with a pneumatic platform, allowing Neptune to undulate slowly up from the depths of the sea. Freakin' sweet.

And that's it for the basic set elements, which I grudgingly admit were both aesthetically pleasing and served the opera well. The transformations from place to place were achieved quite neatly with an excellent lighting design by Aaron Black and a minimum of auxiliary set pieces. For example, Eumete's pasture was created by lighting the upstage wall in the golden orange of late afternoon and the floor in crayola green. Two rectangular pieces about 10 feet high and 5 feet wide were flown in. These contained cutouts representing trees and gave the performers plausible places to "hide" until their presence was revealed to the others in the scene).

The mortal and divine worlds (which are always getting their peanut butter in one another's chocolate anyway) are distinguished by the spaces they occupy and through Candice Donnelly's costume design, which ranged from sublime to just plain odd. Neptune, as previously mentioned, rises from a trap located in "the sea" of fabric, and only once does he set foot on land—when he and Jove are arguing over the fate of the Phaeicians. His costume was a fantastic array of ragged streamers descending from his shoulders and hips. These were made of shimmering metallic fabric in blues and greens, and his chest piece was made of a duller grey. His bald head and other visible skin were painted in a shimmering scale pattern.

Jove (and later Juno) appears exclusively on the highest platform. His costume was a rich goldenrod color and was complemented with body paint on his head and arms ranging from pure metallic gold to dusky orange. The costume itself was—and there's no getting around it—a dress with a bustier top. And it doesn't matter how manly the shoulder pads and bracers are. It's still a big. yellow. dress. And I'm not really sure why, particularly when paired with Juno's costume, which was more exclusively gold lamé and a pretty simple sword-and-sandals toga and headdress deal. Not particularly well matched.

But if I had the opportunity to sit down with Candice Donnelly, I would not waste time on these minor divine quibbles. I would immediately demand to know why she designed Minerva's costume as though it were something from the active wear line of the Princess Ardala collection. Minerva's initial "humble shepherd" costume was quite clever: Cropped, rough-looking trousers, a loose brown tunic, and a flat-topped hat that does nothing to disguise her sparkly dreadlocks. But the non-icognito Minerva? Oy. Tight silver lamé pants and a matching surplice tunic, belted tight and flaring out over the hips and also sporting the world's most squared off ridiculously flowing silver sleeves. Even Silvar thinks it was all a bit much.

The mortals' costumes were more neutral. The suitors were dressed in black, white, and grey for the most part. Each had his own notion of what the ladies go wild for, ranging from gold medallions to sloppy red cravats and some sweet, sweet zubas for Eurimaco. Iro's suit was either actually quilted or the design made it appear to be. Either way, it made him look even chubbier, so we'll call it a win. The women of the palace were all dressed in variations on the toga ranging from classic to the most modern style for Melanto.

The costumes for the main mortal cast were distinct enough from the masses inhabiting the palace without being jarring. Penelope's black column dress had enough flow that it was sellable as belonging to the same period as the dresses of the palace servants. Ericlea's dour black ensemble was a lot more 20th century, but again, her black head covering was at least a nod to the temporal setting. Telemaco was dressed as Luke Skywalker, which is of course the timeless ensemble for the adventurer, and Ulysses' "reveal" costume (basically loose black pants and a black gee with white trim) really pulled the familial dress style together.

Although Ulisse is the last in COT's Monteverdi trilogy (a collaboration between stage director Diane Paulus and conductor Jane Glover) it's chronologically the second of Monteverdi's three surviving operas. It first appeared in 1640, 33 years after Orfeo (which is not to be confused with . . . oh, never mind) and just 2 years before L'Incoronazione di Poppea. It's strange to think that opera itself was less than 50 years old at this point, and that Monteverdi was functionally a bleeding edge rapper, experimenting with this new-fangled thing called recitative.

Musically, it's just funky, being limited to strings to achieve every emotional goal as it is. Early on, the plunkety nature of the harpsichord and theorbos (and frankly, these are just so silly looking that they were visually distracting at first, too) made me itch a bit. I also had a WTF moment every single time the violins and violas were used as percussion. But probably the only instrumentation issue that irked me all the way through was the inability to really control the volume of the harpsichord, which sometimes rendered the voices indistinct or outright inaudible.

In my last opera entry I promised that I'd be evaluating Roger Pines' claims that Poulenc was drawing on Monteverdi when he wrote Dialogues des Carmélites. I think I'll stay my slapping hand for the moment and assume that Pines' claim is drawing on similarities to the qualities of Monteverdi's operas cited here by Jane Glover:
Basically their characters [i.e., the characters of Ulisse and Poppea, the two later operas] now "talk in song": we hear them thinking, we hear continual development of ideas and thought processes; realistic dialogue, interchange, argument. If the poetic rhetoric is enhanced, even for a few words by some illustrative image, the musical rhetoric is similarly enhanced. The bass line moves in some pattern, the music becomes measured, rather than free, and the result is an arioso section, which may grow into an aria and even be punctuated with a string ritornello; but most often it will just as imperceptibly dissolve back into the conversational flow, where the text is not confined to the mathematical limits of note-values, but released and liberated. . . . [T]he maximum emotional affect is achieved with the minimum of musical means. The large instrumental forces of Mantuan court opera had no place in the Venice commercial theatres.

Certainly Poulenc is going for seamless integration of music and action at all times and gives the stand-out aria wide berth. In this production as in Dialogues, there was literally only one person who tried to get applause going at one point (I think it was after the death of Iro, but I wouldn't swear to it). I'm not sure that Monteverdi is so concerned with the continuous flow of music and action (and as I said with regard to Dialogues, Poulenc seems more Wagnerian about it) over the course of the whole opera as he is determined that what is sung seems as natural as it can given that, you know, people are singing instead of talking. Most ensemble numbers involve people addressing one another, rather than engaging in simultaneous soliloquy. As such, Monteverdi's recitative is very talky where Poulenc's is more lyrical. But when Monteverdi does lapse into poetry—the Phaeicians' shanty, the Ulysses, Eumente, Telemaco trio, the suitors' dance, and, of course, the final love duet between Ulysses and Penelope—the resulting music is wicked singable.

But the talky-ness did get to some of the performances. When Marie Lenormand first took the stage, it was an incredible visual moment. The chalk white of her skin, her severely bobbed black hair, her slight figure some nexus of child-woman-widow in the severe, yet sexy, black gown, and all of this set against the stark white of the stage—all of it was a great way to establish the heartbreak that is the backdrop for all the boozing and would-be wooing of the suitors. Their little charade, of time, fortune, and love wearing down the fragile human nature, just seems cruel given Penelope's palpable pain. (So I have an alliteration addiction to go with the nested parenthetical monkey on my back. Sue me.)

So I was really ready for Penelope to rake open the audience's collective wounds the minute she began to sing. And . . . well . . . it's all talky and Daveda Karanas (Ericlea) was working the piece with a lot more skill. (I wonder if Monteverdi found it challenging to write distinctly enough to differentiate between two mezzo voices?) Lenormand seemed to be having some troubles with phrasing and with going all the way to the back of her throat for angst. (And, you know, there's perfectly good angst on the hard palate right behind the incisors that isn't going to compromise your diction or range.) And, well, all that visual candy went a little bit south and suddenly she looked a little less like a clever, determined, sensible, faithful heroine, and a little more like a character from The Oblongs.

She more than compensated for a wavery start later. Given that the entire story takes place in the space of a day, the range of emotions she explores is impressive. In the wrong hands, both Monteverdi's music and Giacomo Badoaro's libretto could have Penelope coming off as flighty and not a little bit schizophrenic. Penelope herself explains her resistance to suitors in a number of ways: She would be crazy to expose herself to the potential pain that love brings; she won't lower herself to their level; she is still crazy in love with Ulysses. Lenormand's performance weaves them all into a complex, believable whole, and the payoff in the final duet is incredible. Both Lenormand and Monteverdi more than redeemed themselves.

Lenormand was not the only performer whose start was less than promising. Scott Belluz, one of the countertenors, set a high bar to open the opera with his work as L'Humana Fragilita, and Paul Corona (Tempo in the same charade) didn't compare especially favorably, but later knocked my socks off. Robert Burt (Iro) was funny enough in his big number with Eumete (then again, how can you not be funny when you've got a bit comedy salami and an entire sheep on a spit in your bindle?), but he was venturing well into Rex Harrison sing-talking territory, which is just never going to work in opera. But then his "Who Will Feed the Hungry" aria and suicide were masterfully sung and acted. Given the endemic nature of the slow start, I suppose that the first act might have been under-rehearsed or simply one of those problems that resists solving (and any production can have those), but I have a feeling that the music and libretto just didn't click in the exposition the way they did once the heart of the story is underway.

Whether by virtue of greater skill, clearer vision, more rehearsal, or simply parts that were better written, but some of the cast definitely hit the ground running. Darren Stokes obviously relished every facet of Neptune, from the quirky physicality required to the license to chew the scenery. I may have been mentally snarking when Giove and his stunning evening gown first appeared, but the very first notes emanating from Jason Collins put an abrupt halt to that.

The goddesses (Fiona Murphy as Minerva and Micaëla Oeste as Giunone) thus had a lot to live up to. As Giunone only has one brief scene near the end, I don't think it's fair to say that Oeste failed to distinguish herself. Her voice was a little mannered for my tastes, but she played well off Collins dramatically. Murphy's performance was more uneven (and I'm trying to be fair and to separate the woman from the heinous costume in my evaluation). Her first encounter with Ulysses was splendid. She was sprightly, motivating, and inspired confidence that all would be well so long as he remained under her protection. But later, it seemed as if she let the silver lamé sleeves of doom be the boss of her and her voice. She also didn't do particularly well at doing nothing on stage. Or, rather, when Minerva has nothing to sing, but is manipulating people and events, Murphy clunked about a bit. Quite possibly, though, the blocking on some of those was not well thought out given the space constraints of the Q*bert platform and the sheer number of people on the stage. Still, I wouldn't call Murphy or her performance a negative at all. She simply wasn't as much of a positive as some of the other supporting cast.

For example, I must give all supporting tenor credit where supporting tenor credit is due: Both Robin Leggate (Eumete) and Nicholas Phan (Telemaco) were pretty much perfect, vocally and dramatically. Their work conceptually and literally flanking Ulysses—the young idealist, attracted to the impossible and the man past his prime who has winnowed his life down to simple, essential pleasures—was superb, thanks both to the talent of the performers and, I think, to Paulas's direction. Maybe these "tenors" aren't all overrated hacks who suck up way to much valuable opera time that could be devoted to basses and baritones after all. (Don't worry, Giordano, you're still totally my main tenor squeeze. Call me!)

Early on, I'd been prepared to really enjoy the romantic subplot of Melanto (Melina Pineda) and Eurimaco (Edmundas Seilius). This was partly due to the fact that it's a bit of simple young lust that is much needed to counterbalance the complexity of Penelope's situation, which threatens to be crushed under its own emotional, personal, and political weight. I also found their first duet so attractive because it is a simple, mutual love song, full of frank affection on both sides and kind of charming in its narcissism. At first it seemed as if Seilius couldn't keep pace with Pineda, the clear leader early on, but he came up to the mark and finished both the duet and the opera well. I was a little surprised (and spooked) to read that Pineda is known for her Anita in West Side Story because her physical carriage reminded me strongly of Natalie Wood (although her voice, mercifully, had little in common with Marni Nixon's). In retrospect, I note that her voice had a full, rich quality to it in her brief interactions with Penelope, which suggests she was consciously lightening things up vocally as is appropriate for Melanto the lover. The slaughter of the suitors does seem a bit hard on these poor crazy kids, but I guess Eurimaco should have realized that a maid in the hand is worth a queen in the bush. Or something.

Monteverdi's opera really belongs, for once, to the title character, though. Fortunately, Mark Le Brocq was more than capable to carry the dramatic and vocal weight. I wonder if Marie Lenormand wanted to kick him because the opening vocal salvo for Ulisse is so much more a straightforward song of rage and despair. But leaving aside whether or not Le Brocq had an easier time of things or not, he was on fire from his first note. He was every inch the father to Telemaco, the master to Eumete, the vengeful king and husband to the suitors, the faithful adherent of the gods, and the uncertain long-absent lover of Penelope. I really got the first chills of the evening at the end of Act II during his trio with Telemaco and Eumete (consarnit, I keep wanting to put an n in there). As good as those two were individually, it was as though acting and singing with Le Brocq urged them both to even greater heights. And not that I need an excuse to gush about the closing duet, but he was amazing. He and Lenormand seemed to spark something deliciously longing and passionate in one another. In fairness I suppose I ought to give a nod to old Claudio himself who, even 8 years into his Catholic priesthood, wrote something so absolutely hot.

As I noted regarding R&J, there's something to be said for already knowing the text you're about to enjoy pretty well. I don't know The Odyssey nearly so well as I know R&J, but my security in the knowledge that I would know what was going on at all times without too much exertion had the happy side effect of allowing me to dig a little deeper into portions of the story at will. As much as this is Ulysses' story and Ulysses' opera, there's much more Penelope parity (I'm sick. Pity me.) than is usual in these kinds of stories in which the woman might as well have been kept in a trophy case the whole time for all that anyone cares what's been going on back at the ranch.

It's enjoyable to watch her continually best the suitors. It's touching to see that she is genuinely tempted to join in the dance and open herself to joy again. And most of all it's gratifying that Penelope remains skeptical to the very end, rather than succumbing to some clever disguise in the penultimate moment so that Ulysses can discover her in flagrante with some divine joke.

It's also delightful that Monteverde recognizes that her behavior is bound to make the men around her, so used to control as they are, positively livid. And he's not afraid to use his likable characters, Telemaco and Eumete, to contrast this reaction with Ulysses' quiet patience in breaking the news of his return gently. Their relationship is curiously one of equals and strange for a story written perhaps 3000 years ago and an opera written 400 years ago. Yes, I know that most of the credit for this production not seeming dated and irrelevant should go to Paulas as the director and to the very fine performers, but it's also there, in Homer, in Badoaro, and in Monteverdi. And I find that strangely heartening just now.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who ARE you?????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

11:39 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Um . . . not the person commenting anonymously to my blog?

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure it was a great performance.
But the decision to use only strings was the music director's, not the composer's. The great 1970's recording of the Trilogy by Nicolas Harnoncort (HIGHLY recommended now that it has just come out on DVD) has very, very prominant parts for early trombones and natural trumpets.
If you like this opera, be sure and watch l'Orfeo (1607) and Poppea (1642), the bookends of the triology. There are now 4 other excellent DVD productions besides the aforementioned Harnoncort traditional DGG version. Enjoy!

5:25 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Yeah, obviously I know that it was Glover's decision to go with all strings and period instruments at that. I still think the first half has its problems independent of choices in the pit, but it was nonetheless a hell of a production.

I'm absolutely going to check out l'Orfeo and Poppea, though. Thanks for the recommendations.

11:25 PM  

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