25 August, 2009
Image: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. Photo: Johan Jacobs
I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – a baroque opera performed with puppets. At first I didn’t know where to focus my attention – the simple stage set was surprisingly busy. For each character there was not just the puppet, but also the puppeteer and the singer – all three closely connected and contributing equally to the part; the translation of the Italian recitative was displayed on supertitles; the musicians, present onstage in a raised semi-circle behind the action, were intriguing to watch, frequently switching instruments; and on a screen at the back of the stage, black-and-white film and animation. While the majority of the action took place in the centre of the stage, around a bed or dressing table, attention was occasionally cast onto a singer, for example representing Fortune or Time, standing amid the musicians, or beyond them to a puppet character on a journey through an animated charcoal landscape. However, soon my eyes became used to flickering from place to place, and the very different elements of storytelling merged together to create a completely absorbing performance.
The puppetry was stunning – beautifully carved wooden puppets, their faces expressive yet still rough-hewn, half life sized and fully dressed in robes, pyjamas or sparkling jewellery – these vivid characters were combined with skilful control from the puppeteers creating incredibly lifelike, subtle movement, from the breathing of the sleeping Ulysses to the walking shepherd. The Ricercar Consort, on original instruments including several types of viol, the precursor to the violin family, and the theorbo, a kind of lute, played magnificently, while the singers negotiated the intricacies of baroque operatic writing with ease.
There were three distinct and very different settings. Of course the Ancient Greece of the story from Homer’s Odyssey is referenced, particularly through the puppet costumes. Also Monteverdi’s Venice – the frivolous suitors and Penelope are dressed as Baroque nobility. However, this all seems to be perhaps just the confused hallucinations of a dying man in hospital – Ulysses is dressed in pyjamas, and while his recitative tells the story of his voyage home, the screen shows MRI scans, gastroscopies and surgical procedures, melting into bizarre images of war and destruction. On his voyage he passes through hospital corridors which, as in a dream, become ancient temples. During the prologue, the characters of Fortune, Time, Love and Human Frailty cluster around the Ulysses’s bed like doctors.
This fascinating production was beautifully performed and incredibly complex, and although it ended with Ulysses and Penelope happily reunited, the dominating theme of mortality combined with bleak and sometimes chilling images left me feeling solemn, Ulysses portrayed less as a hero than as a sick man struggling for his life.
Reveiwer: Joanna Ramasawmy