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The return of Ulysses to the English public (Roundhouse, 21 January 2018)

Ulysse: Roderick Williams
Penelope: Caitlin Hulcup
Telemachus: Samuel Boden
Melanto: Francesca Chiejina
Eurymachus: Andrew Tortise
Iros: Stuart Jackson
Minerva: Catherine Carby
Shepherd: Matthew Milhofer
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Early Opera Company and assorted chorus
Director: John Fulljames

In what has now become a very welcome dedication to the earlier repertoire, this January ROH has staged the second of the three Monteverdi operas, in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. I didn’t feel at all deprived of Italian. For a more historically informed writeup please check Leander‘s.

Interestingly and quite like Willy Decker’s, Fulljames’ production also featured a rotating stage, this time with the orchestra in the middle pit rotating one way and the singers on an external donut rotating the other way. I guess this concept only makes sense what with this story often portrayed on ancient vases and/or to show the passage of time etc.

Though the orchestra was trv kvlt early music, cornetto and all, the team decided to introduce a chorus (made up of selected ROH Orchestra members and Guilhall students, if I remember correctly). In the queue to the loo after the event I overheard some comments that it was unnecessary but I enjoyed it a lot in the party numbers where they were used (I didn’t even know there were party numbers in Ulisse, side from what the pretenders sing; perhaps this was made up but it did not bother me one bit). I thought there was enough informed stuff what with the orchestra and the singers largely adhering to style so a bit of something else along the same lines of Monteverdi’s writing was a-ok.

Williams as Ulisse was wonderful, very affecting and light at the same time (in regards to his movements as well – Mum commented his dancing skills were tops). Now having heard a few Ulisses I liked his take better than Streit’s. I’m still undecided between him and Bostridge because both are great. I’m quite sure Streit was shortchanged by the orchestral forces behind him and possibly by the direction. This time everything was as it should be, with no singers ever having the force their way through the harpsichord wall of sound or chance becoming unheard or simply powering through for no discernible reason.

I wasn’t convinced by Carby’s Minerva, whose voice sounded too large for the role for me. I understand the direction asked her to portray the boot and combat trouser, strong and scorned god but one still needs to vocally keep with the style of the piece presented. Unlike Leander, I enjoyed Chiejina’s Melanto a lot and did not hear her vibrato. I thought she did a wonderful job, the best I’ve heard from her so far, with attention to style, wit and youthfulness – and I really like her full (but not too full yet) tone and her tackling of trills. She was easily my favourite after Williams.

Hulcup, taking over the run at the last minute from Chistine Rice (who is on the DVD with Christie), has a genuine mezzo voice that’s not hard to enjoy. On the other hand, Penelope is a very difficult role – what with the constant lamenting – so one needs a lot of colour and to show an intrinsic knowledge of a wife’s tribulations. I didn’t feel either, though the moment she finally recognises Ulisse was well done and she and Williams blended in a lovely manner in the subsequent duet.

This was a very serious production with the comical side toned down considerably and the chorus standing in for stranded refugees. The rotating donut pulled Ulisse away from Penelope even as they sang the final, “happy-ending” duet, apparently in a thought provoking manner. It is perhaps my failing that my thoughts didn’t feel particularly challenged…

I loved it musically – especially concept-wise and in regards to Williams’ performance and liked most of others’ performances. Dramatically I’m not sure I got it all but you know I always enjoy a sparse design and am rather fond of rotating stages. The Roundhouse either has very good acoustics or something because, as with any round halls, the singers do turn around to sing to different sides and sometimes they have their back to you. There was sound muffling but minimally so. I also liked Minerva and Telemachus singing their duet whilst circling the stage on a tandem bike ūüėÄ it provoke the thoughts of “look at what else opera singers have to do these days! Great cycling skills! Remember Rinaldo at Glyndebourne? And remember how Orfeo had to dangle from the ceiling in this very venue two years ago? What shall they have Poppea do in 2020?!”

ps: the ushers at the Roundhouse are ace! There was quite a bit of going out of one’s way observed by yours truly. Also the public was very congenial. Mum and I were in a lift with a bunch of ladies her age who all smiled at everybody. My Mum went what’s all that smiling about? All I could say was think first world thoughts, Mum.

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Good times at the opera in 2015

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Chez dehggi, 2015 shall go down as¬†the year of smashing opera trips abroad and the full Monteverdi. I’ve also visited new (to me) local venues such as the Roundhouse and Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe. I had a¬†boatload of Baroque and recitals from some of my top favourites but all periods were included. Also I had the chance to catch Operalia in its first stop to London. The one glaring miss this year was Glyndebourne.

January

L’Orfeo¬†| Roundhouse: very moving performance and surprisingly fitting venue. It’s not for nothing I started the year on a Monteverdi high, I went on to see live his other two great works, in chronological order no less.

February

Farinelli and the King¬†| Wanamaker Playhouse: a play with music, kinda like an opera but with less music, though the music got the most applause, so… ūüôā

L’Ormindo¬†(Cavalli) | Wanamaker Playhouse: not quite Monteverdi but¬†silly as hell

March

VK Handel Recital | Karlsruhe Handel Fest: when the Baroquemobile shifts into turbo gear

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny | ROH: film noir meets mezzos

Semele¬†| London Handel Festival:¬†if I persist in listening, Sem’le I shall adore

Catone in Utica | London Handel Festival: new gen gets whimsical with pasticcio

April

St Matthew Passion | Barbican: the Passion of Mr Oboe and the Coughing Squad

Ben Johnson | Wigmore Hall: Mr Oronte sings zany stuff

JDD Masterclass | Milton Court/Barbican: shut up and learn to trill!

Adriano in Siria (JC Bach) | Britten Hall, RCM: a traditional production!

Il turco in Italia¬†| ROH: introducing Aleksandra Kurzak’s chutzpah

May

Roschmann/Uchida | Wigmore Hall: when very serious and not so serious meet

VK’s Cleopatre¬†| Stadscasino Basel: in which la forza del cleavage defeats dehggi

La forza del destino | Bayersiche Staatsoper: la forza del bad libretto vs. the Temple of Music

Krol Roger | ROH: mesmerising stuff

Sara Mingardo¬†| Wigmore Hall: wrist slashing music done with elegance and… calm

Jessica Pratt | Wigmore Hall: major fun but should come with silencer

June

La voix humaine/Bluebeard’s Castle¬†| Wiesbaden:¬†women battling demons on a hot, sunny day

Queen of Spades | ENO: the least suspected mezzo tour de force (thanks (I think?!), David Alden)

Don Giovanni¬†| ROH: all hail La Roschmann’s Donna Elvira!

July

Guillaume Tell | ROH: Gerry Finley acting mighty morose

JPYA Summer Performance | ROH: mixed bag with young singers

Operalia | ROH: high quality contestants

Roberta Invernizzi | Wigmore Hall: finally fearless Invernizzi

August

Daphne | Grimeborn: unplugged Strauss

September

La voix humaine/La dame de Monte Carlo | Wigmore Hall: la voix de la merveilleuse dame Antonacci

Adriano in Siria (Pergolesi) | Cadogan Hall: Farnaspe in love

Orphee et Eurydice | ROH: the Monteverdi Choir tames the furies

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria¬†| Barbican: il triunfale ritorno d’AAC to¬†Barbican

October

Ariadne auf Naxos | ROH: Mattila does it again

Leo Nucci | Cadogan Hall: old skool Italian

Xerse (Cavalli) | Theater an der Wien: Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert d’Astrée at work

L’incoronazione di Poppea | Theater an der Wien: Metastasio, tornado of concepts and chatting about opera

November

Franco Fagioli recital | Wigmore Hall: sweetly done and Dopo notte!

December

Orontea (Cesti) | Wigmore Hall: shambolic early Baroque

Hard to wish for more excitement after this romp but, as usual, you never know. What I do wish is to hang out again with the fine folks I had such good opera times this year. Half the fun was you ūüôā

A rather Catholic Orfeo (Roundhouse/ROH 21 January, 2015)

The Roundhouse, not hitherto associated with opera, accommodates this modern¬†production wonderfully. I do like the trend of staging opera in other than usual (19th century-style) opera houses and I hope it continues. It’s likely beneficial for all involved.

Though Orfeo¬†was being broadcast, the Roundhouse was a full house yesterday. I think the tickets to this venture sold out a while ago. It’s been a while since I’ve witnessed such tremendous applause and I think some of it had to do with the more relaxed location.

Orfeo: Gyula Orendt
Music/Euridice/Echo: Mary Bevan
Silvia (Messenger): Susan Bickley
First Pastor: Anthony Gregory
Second Pastor (Apollo): Alexander Sprague
Third Pastor: Christopher Lowrey
Charon: James Platt
Proserpina: Rachel Kelly
Pluto: Callum Thorpe
Nymph: Susanna Hurrell
Conductor: Christopher Moulds
Director: Michael Boyd | Orchestra of the Early Opera Company

Watch it. Those who have not seen the webcast¬†yet should know ROH will keep it on the ‘tube for 6 months (here). More power to ROH! May Bayerische and Wienner (and every other house who wants to push their productions)¬†take the hint.

Oh, no, it’s in English! I don’t know about others, but I¬†had no issues with this. Occasionally it was even a benefit, as the language is rather poetic and it’s well worth understanding it instantly.

Staging. Whilst I liked the general concept (such as it was, not¬†exactly konzept), I admit I didn’t get the Catholic angle. Why get all specific on the divinity of light if you’re not calling Pluto Lucifer? I liked the choreography, of which there was a lot and very physical. Nymphs and shepherds, you can believe they’d be all boisterous. My favourite moments were when two of Orfeo’s buddies playfully jumped over his head. Orfeo himself had a lot of things to do, from being (energetically) cute with Euridice to reaching down¬†to her rather dangerously from “the ropes of heaven”, also jumping from the stage into “the fires of hell”. Since you can see it for yourself, I won’t¬†hide the fact that he slipped once ūüėČ

The river Styx. A special word goes to “the writhing souls¬†river Styx”, a brilliant idea, used to most effect when Orfeo loses and tries to pull Euridice back. I mentioned the Barque of Dante in my¬†second Idomeneo review but¬†though¬†you might think I see it everywhere (I see dead people!), it came to mind again. The Pieta-pose you might notice¬†at the beginning¬†is specifically referenced, as I noticed in someone’s booklet. That ties in with the Catholic angle, but Orfeo = Jesus? Sorta kinda maybe… music as redeemer, I guess.

Unfussy. I’ve sung praises to stark productions before, so you know I’m not fussed by a lack of sets. In fact, I appreciate inventiveness and good use of existing space (as in the case of the Grimeborn Poppea, one of my favourite performances of 2014). One or two key things (such as the river Styx or the ramp) and engrossing performances from the singers should be enough to carry the thing.

One of the best things about¬†the ramp was that it allowed the singers to sing very near to the audience, which helped both with hearing their pianissime and with seeing their commitment to character up-close, the likes of which the usual opera house¬†setting does not allow 1. I know not everyone liked the ramp, but luckily I was sat at an ideal distance from it (10m perhaps) so I didn’t get any of the downsides. Short of singers slipping on it, I prefer ramps to stairs in opera. Plus I think it added to the “above and below” theme running through the opera.

Too somber, say some. I don’t know, it’s the story of a man who loses his wife on their wedding day. It explores human frailty, weakness and despair. The central lesson of impermanence would be right up the Buddhist alley. I thought there were enough spirited moments and not just in the beginning (Charon was rather gleeful and Orfeo appeared joyous when he retrieved Euridice).

Singing. Orfeo is one of those roles that can be sung by pretty much every voice type. Baritone works quite lovely as well. Maybe even better than “quite”. Also, this being Monteverdi, your singers – especially your star – need to be capable actors. Here’s where good diction/good vocal acting goes a long way, as there’s a lot of recit and it’s all important.

Orendt’s accent came through but I could understand most of it. His voice is full, warm and evenly produced. Though his is one of the manliest Orfeos, he conveyed a lot of sensitivity in the soft moments. He’s got quite an emotional range and an good deal of¬†charisma. Possente spirto (All powerful spirit) came out beautifully elegant.¬†In short, a moving performance, waterworks galore from yours truly2.

JPYA James Platt, whose performance in Messiah I greatly enjoyed last month, sang a wickedly amusing Charon, especially in the part where he tells Orfeo that, though charmed by his plea, his heart is unmovable. Can’t wait to see him again in whatever he might be in next and I wish him all the best from now on.

Though I only mentioned them, the singing in general was of high quality (especially from the two main ladies, Euridice and Proserpina (also great dress! she sounded better here than in JPYA’s Cosi)), as was the orchestra. The choir occasionally sounded a bit too blended, I’d have liked more individuality. Period trumpets are campy beasts. I think you need to go with their flow.

Organisation or lack thereof. I enjoyed The Roundhouse as a performance space and the staff was extremely helpful but the house should try to figure out a better way of getting people in and out of the venue. Queues strangled the crowd no matter which way you were going. It didn’t help the ushers either (I unknowingly made it in the stalls area and realised my mistake only later (not the right time to upgrade with mum in tow ūüėČ ).

In conclusion (we thought…). It’s one of those things where the whole is greater than its parts. My mum, who hasn’t attended an opera in the past 30 years, had a ball. She’s a big Monteverdi fan so no wonder but she coped really well with the staging as well. For my part I was most pleased with the atmosphere created by Orendt’s performance + the intimate feel of the venue + the simplicity of the staging. Among the “omg, it’s so moving” tears, a few drops were shed for¬†the fact I only had tickets to this one¬†performance.


  1. Most certainly at ROH you would never in a million years get such good views with a ¬£10 ticket. 
  2. Orfeo in all his incarnations is one of my very favourite operatic characters.