The faithful wife waiting for her husband to come home from war is always with us. Homer’s Odyssey provides the archetype, as long-suffering Penelope awaits her Odysseus, but images of present-day wives in news reports about the war in Afghanistan are just as pertinent now that conflict has lasted as long as the Trojan war.
The connection is forcefully made in this new staging of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. Each spring, English National Opera decamps to the Young Vic to play an opera that would be too small for the London Coliseum. Previously, these have been contemporary operas and the overall standard has been high, especially last year’s outstanding production of Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers.
This year’s Monteverdi, sung in gritty, modern English, feels as contemporary but is less successful. As updated by producer Benedict Andrews, the opera delivers an undeniable punch and looks good in its gleamingly modern set. A Perspex cube contains a designer apartment kitted out in minimalist style with every working gadget. But too much is going on: the singers are constantly busy with domestic chores and the television screens showing their activities make this like trying to watch an opera and a two-hour slice of Big Brother at the same time.
Plates of food are thrown, balloons are waved, confetti is scattered, and emotions are tossed and turned with equal exaggeration, from manic laughter to gut-wrenching agony. It is all rather exhausting and one longs for a moment of calm, when the quiet and true feelings at the heart of Monteverdi’s opera might shine through.
That they do is thanks to the singers in the central roles. Tom Randle gives a full-frontal portrayal of a soldier emotionally scarred by war and, though no early music specialist, makes every word tell. Pamela Helen Stephen is less interesting in the recitative, but her warm singing blossoms in lyrical passages. They both look emotionally drained by the end. There are no weaknesses in the cast and the conductor, Jonathan Cohen, gets admirably flexible playing out of his small band of musicians from the ENO Orchestra. Performances of The Return of Ulysses do not come round often. On balance, it is probably advisable not to endure the long wait for another.