If you stage an opera in a venue like the Roundhouse, Camden Town – a cavernously vaulted former train shed; dark, impressive and, well, round – the space becomes the show. And it certainly does in the new production of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, which the Royal Opera has taken up to Camden as it did the same composer’s Orfeo a few years back.
Then as now, this makes an interesting project suited to an early Baroque piece that benefits from a less formal staging than Covent Garden allows. But where Orfeo was a triumph, Ulysses is not – despite compassionate, intelligent direction by John Fulljames, who follows the dictates of the building by working in the round, and a clever set that has the singers on a circular catwalk with the band (of period instruments led from the keyboard by Christian Curnyn) dropped into the hole in the middle.
As the performance runs, the catwalk turns in one direction while the band revolves more slowly in the other, distributing the production democratically to an audience on all sides. It fits the narrative: the idea of “return” through passing time, as Ulysses comes home after the Trojan Wars to find his kingdom changed. And it would be fine except that catwalks leave no space for action other than parading up and down in single file – which is more or less how Fulljames has it. Nothing very striking happens beyond smoke effects and a precarious cycling routine, sort of funny at the time.
The voices are all sound-enhanced so they don’t disappear when singers have their backs to you. And there are nice if small performances, especially from Roderick Williams, who makes Ulysses a grizzled relic of the past unlikely to fit back into the world he left too long ago. Samuel Boden’s buff but vulnerable Telemachus is touching; Stuart Jackson is impressively revolting as the glutton Iris. But the star remains the Roundhouse, which is problematic as a place for opera but a building of such presence it’s worth rising to the challenge.
The default position of your average Handel aria for bass voice tends towards indignant rage and bluster. And a whole night of that could be wearisome – unless the singer is someone like Christopher Purves, whose nuanced artistry made light work of an all-Handel recital with the period band Arcangelo at Milton Court. Purves has an easy, unaffected vocal manner but a subtle understanding of the characters he sings. His raging never bores. And nor does the exhilarating brilliance of Arcangelo, a group with a formidable array of solo-status players. What they played here is about to be issued on CD. Expect a winner.
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