The Return of Ulysses, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York – review

The opera season hasn’t even begun. Still, operatic agitation abounds.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin opens at the Met on September 23 with Valery Gergiev manning the podium and Anna Netrebko singing Tatiana. Citing both artists’ public support of Vladimir Putin and deploring Putin’s official stand against homosexuality, a massive petition has materialised demanding that the performance be officially dedicated to the support of gay people. And this week George Steel, manager of the now-nomadic City Opera, threatened that his troubled company will close after the US premiere of Anna Nicole on September 17 unless donors cough up $7m. So far, success has been elusive on both fronts.

Meanwhile it was operatic business as unusual on Tuesday at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where a reasonable, drastically reduced facsimile of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses was mustered by Opera Omnia. What, you might ask, is Opera Omnia?

It is a modest though ambitious organisation that specialises in the reinterpretation of Baroque masterpieces. The singers – young, talented, little known – sometimes flirt with the anachronism of verismo passion. The unabashed conductor, Avi Stein, signals stylish cues from the harpsichord amid a tiny period-instrument band. The locale is an intimate space that lacks both stage and pit.

On this occasion, Crystal Manich moved her players resourcefully around and atop a cluster of improvised platforms “designed” by Julia Noulin-Mérat. Quasi-contemporary costumes, credited to Muriel Grabe Stockdale, suggested deft thrift-shop invasions. An English translation, predicated on a text created by Anne Ridler for ENO, turned out to be intermittently comprehensible.

To admit that the performance was uneven belabours the inevitable. Still, one had to admire lofty spirits, noble intentions and dedication to a worthy cause. The nicely balanced ensemble, led by Jesse Blumberg as a macho Ulysses and Hai-Ting Chinn as a beauteous Penelope, nearly managed to make the 17th century seem modern. One isn’t likely to experience anything like that these days at the mighty Met or the sickly City Opera.

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