Opera Atelier’s Revival of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses (1640) starts slowly but builds to a strong finish. By intermission I had enjoyed a few moments (Kresimir Spicer in the title role and Mireille Lebel as Penelope, and Meghan Lindsay in a pair of goddess incarnations) as well as the usual sterling work of the orchestra led by David Fallis, but otherwise wondered if things might improve in the second half. I think director Marshall Pynkoski devoted most of his attention & energy to the complexities in the latter scenes, where most of the dramatic interest is found.
And wow did the story ever come to life.
There are at least three plot-lines, in this opera based on Homer’s epic. After a Prologue showing us the vulnerability of man in the hands of the gods, we watch things developing at home around Penelope including among the servants in the palace, around Telemaco, and around Ulysses. Gradually the action coalesces as Telemaco reunites with his father –in the most affecting moments before the intermission—and we see the pathway Ulysses will take homewards, as Minerva assists him and his son in handling the suitors who are pressuring Penelope to re-marry.
For the most part we’re listening to gentle vocalism, singers able to sail comfortably over the orchestra because of its delicate sound. Spicer reminded me a bit of Charles Daniels in the Bach Mass in B Minor, for his lovely unforced vocalism, agility without any forcing, perfect intonation and a wonderful sensitivity to the moment. Like Daniels with the Bach, we were witnessing a performer who might know his music better than anyone in the world, having done this role many times over the past 20 years on both sides of the Atlantic. Whenever he was on stage there was something lovely to listen to and usually something interesting to watch. His first scene with Minerva was especially interesting as he and Meghan Lindsay, who had teamed up a few years ago in Der Freischütz in a very different fach were once again making big powerful sounds for a few moments. Lindsay made a totally different kind of impression as Cupid, although both of her goddesses were larger than life.
There was something I saw on social media in the past week or so from Mireille Lebel, an artist whose singing I already admire very much. She said something about intensity, that she would be singing the role of Penelope differently because of something she experienced in the past year. I read this and I set the thought aside, until I came to the last scene of the opera tonight. The way Lebel approaches this last scene is quite unique and validates Monteverdi’s opera for me. I’ve long thought of this last scene as an odd superfluity, when the scene where Ulysses shoots the suitors should take us quickly to the end, rather than leaving us still facing a whole other drama. I don’t know what her subtext is, but the scene makes tremendous sense, right up to the moment when Lebel is persuaded, and you feel the Earth move, as everyone feels the adjustment and change in her attitude, as she finally believes that Ulysses has come home. I realized that for the entire scene I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, the flashing eyes and the unbearable agony. It’s one of the finest performances I’ve seen in a very long time, and as I said, for me helps to make sense out of Monteverdi’s score for the first time.
I’d like to also mention the powerful presence of Douglas Williams, who was a totally different artist tonight as one of the suitors chasing –and harassing—Penelope, from the man we saw as Figaro a few months ago. Instead of affability & charm we saw swagger and intimidation, a rugged machismo unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Opera Atelier. And I realize now how much restraint he used singing the Mozart, after hearing the sound he produced tonight.
There were other great performances. Laura Pudwell again made me giggle, while sounding fabulous as usual, in the relatively thankless part of Ericlea the nurse, that she elevated into something magnificent. And I realized how much I’ve missed Carla Huhtanen, who was the most musical performer of the night in the fascinating little role of Melanto. Huhtanen has a gift for comedy that had us all laughing, yet it was her musicianship, making beautiful music that impressed me the most. Christopher Enns was a believable son to Ulysses, and the Opera Atelier ballet were as beautiful as ever.
Opera Atelier’s stunning Return of Ulysses continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 28th.