Opera Atelier’s “The Return of Ulysses” Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, October 27, Elgin Theatre, Toronto.

Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” is about the reconciliation of an estranged, middle-aged couple. The youth and exceptional beauty of the cast directed with unrelenting style by Marshall Pynkowski, is the yeast that makes this production rise and shine like a fresh croissant baked from an old recipe.

The story is based on the second half of Homer’s “Odyssey” which recounts the struggles of “Odysseus”, aka “Ulysses, to return to Ithaca, his island home kingdom with his treasure following the sack of Troy. His wife, Penelope, has her struggles too. She has been wondering why her husband has not returned more than 10 years after the war in Troy was won. And, she is besieged by three suitors for her hand that she wants to keep at bay without making them into enemies.

Despite the mythical and heroic dimensions of the story, Monteverdi emphasizes the humanity of his characters, their essential frailty. They are pawns in the hands of various gods, Jove, Neptune and Minerva, who are engaged in a drama at their own level. Pynkowski directs so that from the opening scene, the frailty of the protagonists seems natural and engaging, not merely the formal subject of a spectacle. We are moved by Penelope’s suffering—her hopelessness and depression. We are moved by the helplessness of shipwrecked Ulysses who finds himself stranded on a beach without possessions.

Monteverdi’s score, plangently performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and The Toronto Consort under the baton of David Fallis, is the high performance engine that carries us on an exhilarating ride through these emotional scenarios that are made beautiful and somehow cheerful by the high-spirited performances of singers who can move and act, and dancers who convey intelligence in their movements.

Jeanette Zingg’s dancers move in patterns lively and quick as a tank full of tropical fish. If one had to be singled out, it would be Jeremy Naismith. The palette of vocal colours blend without exception to please the ear. Olivier Laquerre’s Ulysses is strong and warm; Carla Huhtanen as Minerva has an electric authority; Stephanie Novacek’s rounded tones reveal Penelope’s griefs as if they were inclusions held in amber; Lawrence Wiliford, as Eumaeus, the faithful retainer, is ubiquitous, flashing and lithe.

The opera is 400 years old, based on a book about 3000 years old. The production values are very today—scenes are made of shots that change constantly and quickly. A trio of characters will appear first standing together; after a few bars, they will pose themselves sitting in a cluster on the ground; a few bars later, they will be in a kneeling pose, and then standing, and then moving to cluster on stage right. And so on.

The music is even-paced, the action is slow, but the cinematic flow is quick and lively. The result is a charming elegance that is natural, but like art, a bit more golden than life itself. Stage productions of this caliber are why we have theatre—to get a bit more out of life than we can on our own. A lot more, in this case.

“The Return of Ulysses” continues October 28, 30, November 1, 2, 3. For complete details click here

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