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Vick and his Birmingham company have tackled unusual and challenging venues before: Fidelio in a huge partitioned tent abutting the Aston Villa Football Stadium; Wozzeck (phonetically rechristened Votzek) and Candide staged in gaping abandoned industrial works; or Stephen Oliver's Beauty and the Beast amid a maze of discarded TV studios.

Several principles underlie: a love of these down-on-their-luck venues for themselves; the idea that the location should feel unforbidding to the city's non-opera buffs, or to any average person in the street brave enough to give opera a try for the first time; the idea that productions should contain some intelligible allusion, hints and cross-referencing so as to encourage an 'ordinary' audience, making it accessible, yet intriguing and challenging without down-towning opera itself; and a peripatetic approach: the shepherded audience moves around the props and staging -- and (thanks to a notably skilful team of stage hands) vice-versa.

Above all, BOC's idea is that the community itself be centrally involved in the production, both onstage and behind the scenes. This is definitely participation opera. Here, between 50 and 100 'locals' from various community groups were wrapped up in the action: as immigration officers, courtiers, bawds, suitors, servants, mocking and obstructing Ulysses as he strives against heavy odds to regain throne and spouse alike.

Towards the poignant close, where Penelope (Emma Selway), overwhelmed by uncertainty, remains spikily estranged from her self-revealed husband, unable to address, after ten years, the trauma of his longed-for return (how psychologically perceptive Badoaros' libretto proves here), all this collective waitressing and boat-hauling and cavorting only served to highlight this loyal lady's isolation and desolation.

Ulysses' faithful wife Penelope (Emma Selway), trapped in a labyrinth of despair from which there seems no escape.
Ulysses' faithful wife Penelope (Emma Selway), trapped in a labyrinth of despair from which there seems no escape.

Fond of collage, Vick cheerfully pastes the bizarre, the sensational and the anachronistic side by side to produce a mish-mash of (all too often) beguiling ideas. Hence Adrian Thompson's unswerving family retainer, Eumaeus -- one of the evening's finest performances -- has reverted in adversity to being not a swineherd (as in Homer), but a burger stall holder. His first act is to give the beggar a free lunch. Is there any point? Of course; for the patently humble, down-on-your-luck status of this loyal servant is heightened, not diminished. Minerva (again the wonderfully articulate, magnetising Wendy Dawn Thompson) is attired like a Speedway star or motor racing driver. Fast-moving, quick-thinking, able to work wonders: the impact is immediate, feisty, and strong. Every word grips.

Especially effective were tidy smaller ensembles: the intervening senior gods; several suitors' trios; the shameless dalliance of Penelope's maid, Melantho (Susan Atherton) with the mellifluous and passionate fourth intruder, Homer's despised Eurymachus.

Andrew Clarke, vividly attired by designer Timothy O'Brien, sang both his contrasting roles -- Eurymachus, and the King of the Gods hoist high on an Olympian plinth -- with great appeal. Here, from this former Royal Academy student, is promise indeed: a pliant voice, full of attraction, and a clear talent emerging, all the more evidenced by Clarke's punchy, even exquisite singing of the role of Jupiter. Andee-Louise Hypolite made a memorable late intervention, rich in lower registers, as a resplendently attired Juno. Keel Watson, one of Birmingham's regular presences (their blustering Pizarro, for instance), set the Ice Rink's resonances roaring as a tetchy Neptune, often finessed, if distanced from the fine-honed small orchestra (mainly strings, in John Toll's realisation, more economic than some) under a seasoned Early Music specialist, conductor Robert Howarth.

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Copyright © 5 June 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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