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Birmingham Opera Company's 'Ulysses comes home',


Graham Vick is a daring, risk-taking, hard-hitting director. And his latest extraordinary undertaking with Birmingham Opera Company, the equally punchy and enterprising ensemble which he has nurtured to epitomise (along with the CBSO, Ikon Gallery and Symphony Hall) Birmingham's vigorous artistic and musical flair, proved a gloriously bizarre Odyssey: a fascinating triumph against the odds.

Vick himself is something of an Odysseus: as a director, a veritable Houdini. If anyone could have dreamed up an unlikely idea like the Wooden Horse and wangled his way into Troy, he would have. Or if anyone could contrive to return in beggarly disguise after ten years' maritime battering and see off all his swaggering rivals with a deliciously unexpected volte-face, Vick would be your man.

In a way it's a pity that Ulysses Comes Home -- Birmingham Opera Company's profoundly involving and distinctly unusual approach to Claudio Monteverdi's penultimate music drama, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria -- doesn't include a prequel, charting the Homeric hero's bizarre wanderings and umpteen strange experiences.

Given such invention -- and granted that Monteverdi's opera covers only the events on Ithaca once the hero is ditched in a net on its shores by a vociferous trio of Phaeacian sailors (Owen Willetts, Nicholas Watts, Robert Winsdale Anderson) -- what Wagnerian arcana might Vick have woven together with a few sensual Sirens, a sex-hungry Circe and a clashing Scylla and Charybdis thrown in?

Two of those three singers featured in Vick's deliberately provocative 'abstract' Prologue, which pre-echoes the opening discourse of Poppea just two years later: Anderson as an ominously cavorting Time; Willetts' demure countertenor (as Human Frailty), outwitted by Cupid (soprano Susan Atherton, doubling as Penelope's cynically risqué maid) and a shamelessly busty Wendy Dawn Thompson as a hyper-sensual Fortune.

Fortune (Wendy Dawn Thompson), Cupid (Susan Atherton), Human Frailty (Owen Willetts) and Time (Robert Winsdale Anderson) perform Birmingham Opera Company's sensual and provocative prologue
Fortune (Wendy Dawn Thompson), Cupid (Susan Atherton), Human Frailty (Owen Willetts) and Time (Robert Winsdale Anderson) perform Birmingham Opera Company's sensual and provocative prologue

With this (as it were) 'front of proscenium'-appetiser, the audience made its first acquaintance with Vick's markedly untraditional venue, approached up a dilapidated gangway, paint peeling off, that deposits the audience past the portaloos in a kind of murky cave.

Once the divider curtain peeled back, this former Birmingham Ice Rink's spacious interior appeared: a gaping cavern, and a vast acting space, sultry, shadowy, and distinctly threatening.

Cranes (the mechanical kind) hovered in the wings. Part of an articulated lorry served as one of several platform stages; a mysterious closed trailer, soon to unveil a very unexpected but homely Eumaeus, hovered nearby. A wire lateral fence divided the acting area in two.

A series of functionaries' (immigration officers'?) desks suggested a lurking overall image, as if to whisper words like 'outcast', 'exclusion' and 'rejection'. Ulysses, cast up on his former territory, is a stranger: down on his luck, bruised, shipwrecked, he fares no better than any unknown, suspect immigrant. Noone recognises him, but everyone wants to keep him out, to knock him around, get rid of him. Life in his own home becomes daunting, buffeted, unnerving, intimidating.

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Copyright © 5 June 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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